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Where Did Gildas Write?

Those eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that are old county maps of Britain.

Apologies for any typos, but I did this in somewhat of a hurry. I will try to correct in the coming days.

There have been many theories as to where the 6th century cleric/deacon, and later saint, Gildas wrote his polemic against five of the British kings at the time in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB). Most favour the Somerset/Dorset area, based on the fact Gildas seems to be berating kings of what was (or still was in his day) the province of Britannia Prima. However, there is one scholar who disagrees: E.A. Thompson.

Thompson, in a paper from 1978 (available at JSTOR), reads the evidence as Gildas writing somewhere north of Britannia Prima, or, possibly, Chester. (Chester was most likely in this province, but we’ll come back to that). His reasoning is based on a pretty good argument.

His thinking behind why Gildas may have been in the north is because, when discussing the section about the Scotti and Picti raids and the ‘Saxon’ deployment answer to this, it is all about the north. He doesn’t discuss the south at all with regards to Germanic feoderati.

Gildas tells us that the raids happen thusly …

No sooner were they [the Romans] gone, than the Picts and Scots, like worms which in the heat of mid-day come forth from their holes, hastily land again from their canoes, in which they had been carried beyond the Cichican valley, differing one from another in manners, but inspired with the same avidity for blood, and all more eager to shroud their villainous faces in bushy hair than to cover with decent clothing those parts of their body which required it. Moreover, having heard of the departure of our friends, and their resolution never to return, they seized with greater boldness than before on all the country towards the extreme north as far as the wall. To oppose them there was placed on the heights a garrison equally slow to fight and ill adapted to run away, a useless and panic-struck company, who clambered away days and nights on their unprofitable watch. Meanwhile the hooked weapons of their enemies were not idle, and our wretched countrymen were dragged from the wall and dashed against the ground. Such premature death, however, painful as it was, saved them from seeing the miserable sufferings of their brothers and children. But why should I say more? they left their cities, abandoned the protection of the wall and dispersed themselves in flight more desperately than before. The enemy, on the other hand, pursued them with more unrelenting cruelty than before, and butchered our countrymen like sheep, so that their habitations were like those of savage beasts; for they turned their arms upon each other, and for the sake of a little sustenance, imbrued their hands in the blood of their fellow countrymen. Thus foreign calamities were augmented by domestic feuds; so that the whole country was entirely destitute of provisions, save such as could be procured in the chase. (DEB, 19)

Thompson goes on to argue …

According to him [Gildas], in the years preceding 446, the date of Aetius’s third consulship, the Picts and Scots, coming by sea (as he repeatedly emphasizes) seized northern Britain as far as the Wall. We do not know what exactly he means by ‘northern’ Britain; but since he describes the area as ‘all the northern and extreme part of the land as far as the wall’, omnem aquilonalem extremamque terrae partem . . . muro tenus, we can hardly be wrong in supposing that the area which he has in mind is some or all of that part of Britain which lies north of the Mersey and the Humber. The words, which are emphatic, would be wholly unsuited to describe the Midlands or Wales or East Anglia or any region that included any of these. As a description of Kent, of course, they would be ludicrous. On the other hand, the words cannot mean Scotland north of the Wall: the activities which Gildas goes on to describe undoubtedly took place within the old British diocese, and indeed he is unlikely to have cared what went on north of the Wall. He is not speaking here, then, about Britain as a whole. The events which he is narrating took place in the north only: the Picts and Scots came down by sea, landed on the east and west coasts of this region, and ravaged northwards as far as the Wall. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this fact: Gildas is speaking of the very north of Roman Britain.

(I’m not going to get into the argued dates of the Adventus Saxonum (Saxon Advent) here as that’s a whole other kettle of fish!)

Gildas then tells us how the ‘Proud Tyrant’ (thought to be Vortigern but other forward Constantine III) responded by using *‘Saxon’ feoderati against them, basing them in the ‘east of the island’. Meaning, according to Thompson, in the northeast, where the raids were happening, and not the southeast. (This could have been east and/or southeast Yorkshire and East Anglia – more below). It would certainly make more sense than the Isle of Thanet, which is where they are traditionally placed. Not that they weren’t there, but that this may have been a different group, possibly at a different (earlier?) time. Something was obviously going on in the south as the Gallic Chronicles (as well as the archaeology) tell us so. Here’s Thompson response to that:

We also have some information from a south Gallic chronicler, who may have been writing at Marseilles and who was certainly an exact contemporary of the events in question. The Chronicler of A.D. 452 tells us that the British provinces, which had hitherto suffered a variety of calamities, were ‘reduced to subjection by the ‘Saxons’ about the years 441-2. The statement is an exaggeration, but we cannot dismiss it out of hand. A Gallic chronicler is more likely to have been in touch with southern Britain than with the Midlands or with the North. We have convincing evidence, then, that in 441-2 the Saxons inflicted a catastrophic blow on parts of Britain – in all probability, the southern parts of Britain. And these events were so disastrous that news of them had even reached southern Gaul and were thought there to be so significant as to deserve an entry in a very brief chronicle. The report had (falsely) convinced men there that the Britons had succumbed permanently to the invaders. Even as late as 452 the effects of this disaster were still felt – or at any rate, the news of any British recovery had not yet reached southern Gaul. Now, a very few years later a synod of British bishops (as it seems) was able to meet and to invite Germanus of Auxerre to pay his second visit to Britain; and Germanus was  able to travel to the island and complete his business there without ever clapping an eye upon a Saxon. He must have come to a more westerly region than he had reached in his first visit in 429, when he saw plenty of Saxons. But in spite of this we cannot write off the Chronicler’s words. It is his sole reference to the Britain of his own day, so that the event must have seemed to him to be of exceptional importance and interest. Let us suppose that the Saxon successes to which he refers took place in the south-east of the island: we can then account for Gildas’s silence about them, for, as we have seen, he is concerned with the north of Britain, and we can also account for Germanus’s freedom to travel, for his second visit (as we may guess) took him further to the west than the danger area.

There are those who argue that we cannot trust the Gallic Chronicles before 450 (Miller) but I would offer that it also could have been British migrants to Gaul who passed and spread this (dis)information.

Gildas’s knowledge of the first half of the 5th century is shaky, so it’s not surprising it is confused, but it appears that two different things were happening and either Gildas got his information wrong, the dates are wrong or the appeal was because the ‘Saxons’ of the south were a problem before the (reoccurring) northern problem and the appeal was about both; that is, Picts and Scots in the north and ‘Saxons’ south of the River Humber.

When the ‘Saxons’ (of the north?) rebelled, because they weren’t paid enough, they ravaged from sea to sea, according to Gildas. Thompson argues that Gildas is not referring to from the English Channel to the Bristol Channel, but the North Sea to the Irish Sea, before possibly turning their attention south.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a rebellion in the south, but that Gildas is only referring to what he knows more about: north of the Mersey/Humber line; that is, what was (or still was) Britannia Secunda/Valentia. It’s a very valid point that Gildas makes no mention of the southeast or south if he was writing from the southwest and very near ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cultural and military expansion.

Another reason Thompson gives is one of personal safety! Would Gildas say such things against these kings unless he was at a safe distance from them, especially from Constantine of Dumnonia who may have been closest to him if he wrote in the southwest and one of the most violent? It’s a valid point, although Gildas may have thought God was on his side in the matter, or his whereabouts was unknown. It also may be that, whichever kingdom/civitas Gildas was writing in, Constantine didn’t dare do anything against it. However, Thompson then puts forward Chester as a possible place Gildas wrote. A strange choice as it was not far from two other kings he chastised:  Cuneglasus and Maglocunus! For Thompson’s argument to be consistent, Gildas would have to be somewhere further away, I would have thought.

What does the archaeology say about ‘Saxons’ in the British held north for the Late 5th century? Well, very little actually, but there are Germanic finds associated with some Roman forts (Dark, 2003) as well as the major settlements in what was the Parisi region and what would become Deira (southeast Yorkshire) and later part of Northumbria. Professor Ken Dark also wonders if the Roman forts on the Wall that continued into the 6th century were not the result continuous occupation as such, but rebuilt and manned during the fight back against the Scotti, Picti and, later, Saxon rebels, in the mid 5th century.

The fact that there are so few ‘Saxon’ finds in the region could be seen as their expulsion, or containment, being successful. This make sense if they didn’t have the same foothold or hadn’t been in the north for as long as those in the south.

I never considered Gildas being from the north because of his dating of the building of Hadrian’s and the Antonine walls, which he thought happened in the late 4th century. Thompson has a good answer to this:

Gildas advances his theory on the building of the walls for an obvious reason: no self respecting historian of Roman Britain could possibly have left the two most striking monuments of the Roman occupation unaccounted for. Of the entire passage we can only accept those words spoken by the Romans to the Britons pointing out that they could send no more legions to the island: from now on the Britons must look to their own defence. If we had no further evidence we would reject this passage, too, along with the account of the two Roman expeditions which resulted in the building of the walls. We would regard it as part of the same story or theory. But in fact we have other evidence; and this further evidence throws a very different light on the passage. Gildas has heard in some way of Honorius’s famous letter of 410 to the British civitates bidding them defend themselves. So while we dismiss the aetiological stories of how the walls came to be built we must retain this chapter, which contains some sound historical information. The contents of Honorius’s letter are a matter which Gildas could not possibly have invented, and he could not possibly have got the incident right by coincidence. A genuine tradition has reached him here.

(It should be noted here that some scholars now think the the Honorius rescript was not addressed to the Britons at all, but to the Italian cities of the province of Bruttium. However, the jury is still out as Zosimus, who is the source of the information, is talking about Britain just before this is mentioned. Of course, he himself could have got the information wrong).

There is another (tentative) possibility, and one that would still put Gildas in the southwest, and that is that Gildas is specific about the north and doesn’t dwell on the south because he knows his audience are all too aware of what happened there?

There are other ramification to this, of course, and some of these apply whether Gildas wrote in the north or not. For example: was the Proud Tyrant from the north, or did he just have primacy over it? was Ambrosius Aurelianus from this region? did the battle of Badon happen in the north and not, as most assume, in the southwest? and when Gildas talked of peace, was his view of the whole of the diocese of Britannia influenced by a greater peace in the north, whilst it may not have been so peaceful further south? (But see THIS blog).

It’s very difficult to answer these questions. Later ‘histories’ place both Vortigern and Ambrosius in the south and Wales and not in the north. There might be more of a case for the Proud Tyrant – whoever he was – as he’s the one who brought in the ‘Saxons’ to deal with the northern problem. But if their arrival happened in the south before this, then either Vortigern had primacy over the north, he supplied ‘Saxons’ to the north, or this was not done by Vortigern at all and the stories of the north and south were combined.

Ambrosius could have been dealing with ‘Saxons’ anywhere, but the Historia Britonnum gives him a battle at Wallop in the south, unless he was, indeed, a far ranging dux. As for Badon, Thomas Green has put forward a possible ‘northern’ Badon at Baumber (called Badeburg in the Doomsday Book) in Lincolnshire. As for Gildas’s views on the ‘peace’, writing in the north could have clouded his idea of peace in other regions.

CONCLUSSIONS?

My own conclusions are that there is a good argument for considering that Gildas wrote in the north, but I’m not totally convinced. In Chapter 3 of the DEB, for example, his description of the ‘transparent rivers, flowing in gentle murmurs’ of Britain might place him in Hampshire, but he could have just been reiterating something he’d heard, just as he’d learned about the geography of Britain in general. However, writing in the north does make some sense of him not mentioning the ‘Saxons’ of the south, except, perhaps, obtusely through Ambrosius?

I shall continue to think on’t and look forward to your thoughts and comments. (There are some very interesting comments below).

Thanks for reading,

Mak

* I have used ‘Saxon’ in inverted commas as this was a generic term for several Germanic groups as well as the Saxons themselves.

 

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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Five

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

A rough placing of the 'Anglo-Saxon' regions

You’ll be glad to know that this is a relatively short blog!

‘WEST JUTES’ OF HAMPSHIRE & THE ISLE OF WIGHT

(At the time thought to be roughly the British civitates of western Atrebates and eastern Durotiges).

If Gildas wrote in the southwest, it may have been this lot who were his virtual neighbours … if they were the enemy and not used by the British as feodorati (federates) against ‘Saxon’ expansion from the east. I have read that they appeared in the area quite early in Hampshire, ca 460, but I’m having trouble getting this verified. It makes a big difference to the southern Badon question if they appeared after the battle and during the supposed ‘peace’.  If there’s someone who can clarify this for me I’d be most grateful.

Whilst they may not have been part of the infamous Adventus Saxonum revolt in the mid-5th century, if they were feodorati, they may still have revolted later. Who knows how often alliances changed. (This is not to forgot that some doubt the whole notion of Germanic feodorati).

They might not have had an option of whose side they were on at Badon if Ælle was their Bretwalda. But, just as there are two side to every story (usually more actually) there are two sides to a river, and if the River Hamble in Hampshire was the boundary it’s not inconceivable that some were on the Brits’ side and the others on the ‘Saxons’ or a Saxon-British alliance.

To address what they were doing here in the first place, and why they never seem to have formed a later kingdom, Stuart Laycock brings up some interesting points in his latest book, ‘Warlords’, (2010) about these Jutes.

“The strongest archaeological indication that something significant was happening in Sussex at this time comes from the strange settlement pattern of the Jutes. [...] Though a small independent Jutish kingdom was formed in the Isle of Wight there is no evidence that the Jutes of South Hampshire ever constituted a separate independent Jutish kingdom. Two main possibilities, therefore, present themselves. Either an Anglo-Saxon warlord in Sussex, perhaps Cissa, or perhaps (if the Chronicle has got the dates really wrong) Ælle himself, was moving Jutes from Sussex dominated Kent to the other end of his realm to guard the western borders, or alternatively, perhaps the British authorities in southern Hampshire, in the civitas of the Belgae, were looking for additional Germanic support against the new confident and expansionist Sussex.” (p123)

He goes on to give archæological evidence as to why he believes they might have been used by the British – all to do with spear heads -  but I’m not qualified to comment. It would be most interesting if he were right as it could mean the British of the area doing deals with the Frankish influenced eastern Kent.

Barbara Yorke, in her contribution to the symposium ‘Regna and Gentes. The Relationship between Late Antique and Early Medieval Peoples‘ , has, like others, wondered just how much the Jutes of Kent, Wight and Hampshire were under the control of the Franks on the continent. A king of the Franks did boast that he ruled some of the Britons, and he just might have!

If they were the enemy, then one of the various rivers, and the dykes to the north, could have been what hemmed them in and created the divide.

With regards to the Isle of Wight, Ruth Waller has this to say …

“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s date for the seizing of the island by Cerdic and Cynric is proven unreliable by the pagan Saxon cemeteries with clear Jutish origins dating to the Late 5th and Early 6th century cemetery on Bowcombe and Chessell Downs which indicate settlement well before the documentary dates (Arnold,1982). Further evidence from metal detected finds suggest another six possible cemeteries of similar dates could survive, but synthesis of this evidence is required before conclusions can be made.” (Archaeological Resource Assessment of the Isle of Wight: Early Medieval period, August 2006)

If these Jutes were the ‘bad guys’, then they could have retreated to the island.

The above quote is evidence that there was Jutes on the island in the Late 5th and Early 6th centuries.  If they were there in the Late 5th, then they could very well have been in Hampshire at the same time.  It’s not inconceivable that it’s these peoples who the ASC refers to and attached the events to Cerdic and Cynric, who actually came later.

What would happen to these ‘Jutes’ after the defeat at Badon if they were on the losing side? If Badon was in this region they’d suffer the consequences one would think. They may have been the closest to it. This could be the reason they never did become a separate kingdom.

SOUTH SAXONS

This is the region in which, according to the ASC (which is, of course, untrustworthy for this period), Ælle appears; although no one can be certain of exactly where he appeared from! He’s not even called a king … of anywhere! If he came from somewhere else, then he may not have been a ‘South Saxon’ to begin with, but created such a region. There are arguments that he came from the Continent, just as the Saxons were being defeated in Gaul, but there’s no way of knowing and for this discussion it doesn’t matter.

“The Ecclesiastical History [of Bede] lists the first seven great overlords beginning with Ælle of the South Saxons, whose activities in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are placed between 477 and 491. It seems doubtful whether Ælle really ruled at quite such an early date, especially as the second in the list was Ceawlin of Wessex whose floruit seems to have been the 580s and early 590s.” (Yorke, p16)

… and to quote a Keith Matthews (aka Bad Archaeology blogger) posted on Arthurnet

“What intrigues me is the fact that the death of [Ælle’s] putative son Cissa is placed by the Anglo-Norman historians c 590. We don’t know the authority for this, but Wendy Davies has argued that some of the non-Chronicle material found in these late writers does go back to (possibly Mercian) lost pre-Conquest sources. This would put Ælle in the third quarter of the sixth century, immediately prior to the second Bretwalda, Ceawlin (David Dumville has shown conclusively that the dates for Ceawlin in the Chronicle are pure guesswork and don’t match the data in the earlier king list).”

If Yorke, Davies and Dumville are right, then this rules Ælle out as a Bretwalda at the time of Badon, which makes it that much harder to argue for a large, unified ‘Anglo-Saxon’ military presence there, although it could always have been some other character leading them. Without knowing either Ælle’s or Badon’s actual dates we can’t conclude. However, it could be argued that any large gap between the first and second Bretwaldas was because of the defeat at Badon, and subsequent British dominance, as well as other factors, meaning a Bretwalda couldn’t rise to power during this period. I have to admit, it does seem more logical to me that the Bretwaldas appeared after 550, when the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ expansion and kingdoms appear.

If Ælle was at Badon, then, judging by the relatively small numbers of ‘Saxon’ graves of this region, he was going to have to rely on allies. (That’s if these are representative of the ‘Saxons’ there). Yet to be a Bretwalda he’d need loyal supporters in large numbers on his side. Many of these could have been Britons, but he possibly had ‘Jutes’ and ‘West Saxons’ to draw from.

The burning question would be why, if Bede is right and Ælle was Bretwalda of everything south of the Humber, the eastern ‘Anglian’ peoples would be under his ‘rule’ or follow him? There may be several answers to that, but one (very tenuous) answer that comes to my mind as to why they might have joined him, would be that he said to them something to the affect of, “Look, the Brit’s power base is in Cirencester and most of there warriors were at the southern end of Britannia Prima at the moment. You send some men in from the north and east and push them back, whilst attacking other areas to deflect attention and we’ll come from the south and east and we’ll slaughter them in the middle. We take them and the city and we solve all our problems.”  However, this sounds a bit of a stretch to me, and I wrote it, but stranger things have happened! Another possibility is the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ still functioned under the guise of the old Roman provinces of the east, and if you held power over one of these (or were placed in power) you held power over all those within them?

How many men these ‘Anglian’ areas to the north would be willing send to Badon (if any) is another matter.  (As I’ll explore later, the Brits may not have posed a threat to many of them). The alternatives are alliances to the southern ‘Saxons’ through marriage, which there’s no evidence of, or Ælle threatened or conquered them, which there’s no evidence of … but there’s not much evidence of anything for this period! Another reason could be Ælle was himself from the east.  After all, the next ‘Ælle’ to appear (in the 9th century) was a Northumbrian. Was he named after another famous northeasterner?

If he was the leader at Badon and it was fought in the south, then this would have had massive implication for the ‘South Saxon’ region and the Brits would have been close enough, and, maybe, dominant enough to stop them expanding, creating the long peace. Another possibility is, if the South Saxons were the result of an élite takeover of the British, those British simply swapped sides again for the next X amount of years.

An aside

As an aside, looking at maps like those above (which, I realise, can be misleading) I’m always amazed at how far this Germanic settlement/culture had travelled even by ca 500. Gildas may have said the enemy went home to the east of the island after the initial revolt, but they obviously didn’t stay there very long. (Unless Thompson is right and they returned to their bases in the northeast of what is now England and not Kent or Essex). Gildas also says it wasn’t until they did go back that the fighting against them started and you can understand his conclusions about the Briton’s lack of martial prowess if they couldn’t stop them getting that far. If the Britons did posses remnants of Roman military units as well as militias, they obviously either weren’t in these areas, the ‘enemy’ were of superior quality or some of these British ‘units’ joined them.

Another alternative, which has been forwarded by many others, is that Britannia Prima and many of the civitates of the west also used Germanic mercenaries, such as those possible ones at Dorchester-on-Thames or along the River Avon, as frontier troops, against aggressive neighbours of whatever ethnic origin or location, including British. It could, indeed, be why they were there, and not because they took it by force. If it was more a cultural spread reason then that gives a very different explanation, of course. Alliances through marriage could bring the culture with them, besides those Brits who just liked the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ fashions. However, Gildas certainly doesn’t make it sound like it was a cultural spread.

It also makes me wonder, as many scholars have, if the territories the ‘Saxons’ had were indeed the two old Romano-British eastern provinces of Maxima Caesariensis and Flavia Caesariensis, and Britannia Prima and Britannia Secunda (and Valentia) didn’t care much who was ‘ruling’ them. It was only when they became a direct threat that they really did something about it. But for them to rule ‘provinces’ of this size would take central administration and, as argues by Barbara Yorke and others, they didn’t seem to have this organisation at this stage.  Of course, Ken Dark argues that the British were still in control and Nick Higham that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were actually in control after Badon.

This gets us in to the whole Vortigern/Ambrosius thing, and what it was they ruled and fought for, which I want to stay clear of for this discussion, so I’ll leave it there.

In the next blog I’ll look at the ‘Middle Saxons’, the ‘South Middle-Saxons’ (Surrey), ‘East (‘Jutish’) and West (‘Saxon’) Kent’, ‘East Saxons’, ‘East Angles’, ‘Middle & South Angles’ and the ‘North Angles’.

I look forward to any comments.

Thanks for reading,

Mak

 

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