Tag Archives: De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Three

Provinces based on Anne Dornier's theory with my own thoughts (kindly created for me by Steffon Worthington)

UPDATED 20.1.12 Updates in bold type


Gildas tells us that Britain had rectores. This has been taken by many to mean it had governors – which it can mean along with ‘rulers’ and ‘administrators’ – (Higham, 1994, p178) although, in strict terms, the governors would be the praeses, but no one (apart from Nick Higham?) can be certain of what rectores were by Gildas’s time. (More below).

Gildas says:

Britain has rulers [rectores], and she has watchmen/bishops [speculatores]: why dost thou incline thyself thus uselessly to prate [to talk idly and at length] ?” She has such, I say, not too many, perhaps, but surely not too few: but because they are bent down and pressed beneath so heavy a burden, they have not time allowed them to take breath. (DEB, §26)

Whilst Gildas has used rectores in the DEB when talking about Roman governors, it seems a little odd in this instance to says “She has such, I say, not too many, perhaps, but surely not too few”, if talking about governors and these were provincial governors and there were only two or three provinces left. This is something Professor Higham doesn’t tackle and he sees these rectores as being from London, Cirencester and Lincoln. But Britannia could hardly have “but surely not too few”? So is he referring to another function of these rectores or did some civitates (and kingdoms?) have their own at this time? Higham believes these governors based mainly in ‘Saxon’ controlled or tribute paying areas and under great burden, as Gildas tells us they were. Gildas certainly had some respect for the rectores, at least more than he had for the five kings, in his own time.

I recently noticed, whilst rereading Christopher Gidlow’s excellent book The Reign of Arthur (2004), that he questioned the same thing as mentioned about. He notes that the 5th century writer Ammianus calls emperors, provincial governors, military officials and even barbarian client kings “rectores”, whilst a certain Tutvwlch in the poem Y Gododdin is even called one. (p.120) He also points out something about the Historia Brittonum and its use of dux (or the plural duces) and that is that in every instance before its connection with Arthur when using this term it either means a general or a governor subordinate to the Emperor. (p.44). This could mean when the H.B. says Arthur was a dux, it meant something very specific.

Speculatores used to be one of two things: in Roman military terms they were scouts or spies, but in earlier times they were public attendants. Nick Higham forwards two possibilities: that the rectores/speculatores partnership was civil governor and military captain, or a civil and ecclesiastical one. (Higham,1994, p158). David Dumville simply says the latter were bishops. (After Empire-Towards an Ethnology of Europe’s Barbarians’ (‘Studies in Archaeoethnology, Volume 1’, 1995)).


So, what were these provinces that made up the old Roman diocese of ‘The Britains’? There’s no complete agreement about which ones were where or where their boundaries were, but I’ll use the three maps (below) as a guide. The provinces were:

Maxima Caesariensis

Flavia Caesariensis

Britannia Prima

Britannia Secunda


The following three maps show different possibilities to their locations … and there are more.  (For further discussion on Valentia see THIS blog).

Provinces based on various theories.

Provinces based on J C Mann's theory

Provinces based on Anne Dornier's theory with my own thoughts (kindly created for me by Steffon Worthington)

The map above isn’t quite correct in its placement of some of the northern tribes and will be updated soon.

These provinces (wherever they were) made up the imperial diocese of Britanniae (The Britains). It is all but the two southeastern ones that are argued to still have existed in some form in Gildas’s time, although a few scholars think even these could have still functioned, either under British (Dark) or ‘Saxon’ (Higham) rule. If it’s the latter, then these two eastern provinces were either under a certain degree of, or complete, Germanic control and/or the Germanic culture had taken hold there. For Nick Higham, the region between the two eastern provinces and the eastern portion of Britannia Prima were also under ‘Anglo-Saxon’ suzerainty. (For further discussion on the extent of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ control, see THIS blog). He appears the only scholar to have forwarded this possibility.

The provinces were generally divided along tribal boundaries, but not always … although it’s almost impossible to know where some of the tribal boundaries were. There are various discussion and theories as to whether these tribal civitates and kingdoms made it into the period we are talking about, or whether they had changed. Some regions still retained their civitas (tribal) name, such as Demetia (Dyfed) or Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall), but this doesn’t mean it reflects the pre-Roman political situation and it could be that they simply used the name. Others didn’t; the Ordovices became Venedota (Gwynedd) and possibly part of Powys, with the Cornovii becoming part of Powys and Pengwern, although later Mercians would call them Wreocensæte, Pencersaete etc. No one knows when exactly these changes started to happen or as to what the political tensions were between the various British civitates after Roman rule had ceased. The various competing theories (by scholars and laymen alike) are what make it hard to judge whether the provinces remained intact, disappeared by the Late 5th century or simply changed size and shape. History being a complex affair means it could be a mixture of the above or something completely different.

Several scholars who have studied Gildas’s DEB in depth (but most notably David Dumville and Nick Higham) point to both him, and Continental sources, indicating that provinces did still exist in his day. If they all did, then two of them may have been under complete ‘Anglo-Saxon’ control … and the Gallic Chronicles for 441AD seems to tell us they were. But some scholars argue otherwise. If they are right, then the question is, how much control did they have, and were they united in by someone? Most would say no, but Higham says yes and that it is an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ over-king that Gildas refers to in the name of the ‘father-devil‘. Who’s right makes a difference to the subject of this blog, but since there is no consensus, we’ll continue with the hypothesis that the western and northern provinces could fight back and Badon was a decisive victory for the Britons … although the Britons not being the overall victors still makes these military positions possible at the time.

(Please keep in mind that when I say “Anglo-Saxon’ we’re still talking about Britons being in these regions. Some may have fought against these ‘masters’, other will have sided with with. Some Britons would be slaves, others would be in alliance or inter-marrying).


Gildas tells us that (in his opinion at least) things were a little different at the time of Badon …

[...] and in regard thereof, kings, public magistrates, and private persons, with priests and clergymen, did all and every one of them live orderly according to their several vocations. (DEB, §26)

So we cannot assume that the political and military situation in Gildas’s time was the same as at the time of Badon … unless you’re one of those of the opinion that Gildas meant that Badon only happened one month previous to him writing and not 43 years and 1 month. This argument is based on Gildas’s Latin, and this is beyond me I’m afraid. Most take the view that it was the latter, but there is also a theory that places the battle of Mount Badon, not just to a possible decade but to something far more specific: February, 483! This solution, by D. O. Croinin, is based on the 84 year ‘paschal cycle’. (The ‘lost’ irish 84-year easter table rediscovered, Peritia (6-7), 1987-1988, p. 238). Another theory sees Gildas meaning it happened 43 years and 1 month after Ambrosius’ first victory and another that is was this duration after the Saxon Advent.

All the above considered, Gildas’s duces could have been the major military leaders at that time of Badon and before and in the east and Midlands they may have be purely military rather than kings. However, it could be argued that Gildas simply means ‘leaders‘, which is another translation of duces, but Higham points out that Gildas always uses this and similar terms when referring to ‘military leaders‘. (Higham, 1994, p182 & p189). But in Gildas’s time king and duces, in some regions, had merged … in Gildas’s view.

So Britain may have still had provinces and some of those (and perhaps some civitates) appear to have had governors (if this is what rectores were). There also appears to be military leaders (duces?). Sometimes (in the west?) these were also the kings, but further east it may have been a different story, with rectores and duces (and possibly iudices) fulfilling the separate military and civil roles that the kings made into one. We have no idea of the situation in the north as Gildas doesn’t seem to mention it. (Unless those who theorise that Maglocunus was in the north are right). Once again, there can be no certainty, but these seem to be strong possibilities.

In the next blog we’ll look at what it may have meant if the existing provinces did have commanders.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to comments, thoughts … and corrections,


PS: HUGE thanks to the map maker Steffon Worthington for creating the Anne Dornier based map free of charge! There are lovely people at the Facebook King Arthur Group page!


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King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part Two

Map of Roman Britain, showing the road from Cl...


If these military positions, or one of them, did exist, in some form, in mid to late 5th century Britannia, the question arises as to who exactly these individuals would command: the province’s various warbands or his own provincial army … or both? Generals of the late empire would very often be in command of feoderati (federates) and/or bucellarii (literally meaning ‘biscuit eaters’), but, of course, they could afford them! The former would come in federate ethnic groups, the latter as individual mercenaries, and, perhaps, some ethnic groups.  Bucellarii where his personal household troop and could add up to a considerable number when needed. The magister militum Aegidius had 12,000 at one time.

Here is an interesting quote from a paper with the very long title of ARMIES, WAR, AND SOCIETY IN THE WEST, ca.300-ca.600:LATE ROMAN AND BARBARIAN MILITARY ORGANIZATIONS AND THE ‘FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE’ by Richard Abels:

Generals used federates and bucellarii

Dick Whittaker observes that the “twin process of soldiers becoming landlords and landlords becoming soldiers” in the late empire facilitated 1) the collapse of the frontiers, 2) the integration/fusion of German ‘barbarian’ and Roman culture, 3) the breakdown of law and the growth of a new culture of private power in which ‘the poor became increasingly dependent on the arbitrary will of the landed rich” (Rich 281). As soldiers became landlords and landlords became the masters of soldiers, private individuals became the heads of military retinues of bucellarii. Though by law bucellarii were required to take an oath not only to their employers (a private contract), but one as well to the emperor (public). Surviving Roman administrative records show that bucellarii performed public duties (under the direction of their civilian masters) and were liable for military service if called upon by government authorities. The wealthy Apion family of early sixth-century Egypt received tax breaks for hiring bucellarii, whom they used to collect taxes and maintain order during games in the hippodrome. (Lee 165, citing Liebeschuetz, Barbarians and Bishops 45-6. But, as Whittaker points out, “the public oath was of limited relevance if the patron rebelled or if imperial rule was not recognized: the loyalty of the soldiers than became private obsequium [a personal following]” (295).

Archaeologically, one of the key developments of the fifth century was the increasing ‘nucleation of rural sites. … Small farms disappeared, many vici (villages) were abandoned or removed to old Iron Age hilltop sites, while larger villas … survived, expanded and were often fortified. … [There is evidence] of concentration of property holdings, the increased isolation and inaccessibility of estates and the compulsion on peasants to seek the refuge of the rich’ (292).

Increasingly in the fifth century, the “remnants of the Roman army operated in towns,” and bands of bucellarii in the service of local great men, their patrons, controlled the countryside. The Roman sources term these bands as ‘robbers,’ but it seems probable that they were actually the private forces of local magnates maintaining order and control outside of Roman public authority.

This process was not restricted to ‘Roman’ landlords. It was true also of German chiefs, many of whom were ‘Roman’ generals or federate chieftains. The distinction between ‘Roman’ and ‘German’ itself was disappearing as the cultures merged.

Germanic bodyguards were used by Emperors and it could be as much that they were there, not just for their violent tendency, but because they were (usually) neutral and exotic. (They looked different and talked differently).* This could have been as much the reason some British elites used them as any other … although the fact Constantine III may have taken all the best units (not all) with him to the Continent in his bid for the western Empire may have something to do with it. However, just as happened in the Empire, your bodyguard could turn against you. (Interesting that the emperor Augustus didn’t dismiss his bodyguard, but put them on an island out of harms way* just as the Britons are supposed to have done with the ‘Saxons’ on the Isle of Thanet. (But see THIS blog).


The question comes as to how a provincial force would (or could) operate in Sub Roman Britain, especially if the likes of Higham and Dark are right and we had both ‘tribal’ (‘Celtic’) king based kingdoms (in the west and north) and more civil and military civitates in the Midlands and east, at the same time? How do you get powerful kings and their warbands to work under an ‘outside’ commander? The other question is, how would they be ‘paid’? (Higham’s theory not withstanding that this civil zone was under ‘Anglo-Saxon’ suzerainty or Chris Wickham‘s theory on a greatly fragmented Britain).

The answer to the first question could be that they would probably need to function, in some way at least, modeled on the Late Roman army system. (This, of course, being complicated by the Late Roman Empire’s use of barbarian federates who fought in the own ways). Whether they followed what militarily changes had been going on on the Continent is another matter, and their system may have been an old fashioned one, or a mixture of British and Roman. It may also depend on the part of the old diocese that was in question. If we take northern Britannia first, this could have seen an overall commander in charge of the various forces/warbands that occupied/re-occupied the still existing forts there when they were needed to come together as a combined force. This dux could have either been some over-king (or the equivalent) or a general in the employ of an over-king (as envisaged by Ken Dark). If this over-king had illusions of old imperial Roman grandeur he just might have done the latter. However, if this was the case he may have had to come from a ‘wealthier’ region of the north where surplus grain could be grown, such as the Yorkshire Plain. The old legions of the north had to rely on the southern grain regions to feed the amount of men that were there, though that number would be greatly reduced by this time.

We must also keep in mind, as discussed by Alex Woolf in ‘Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval’ (2003, p360), that kings of Gildas’s time – generally thought to be writing in the first half of the 6th century by all but Higham – in the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) and before may not have functioned in the same way as later, Late 6th century and onward kings did and Gildas’s berated five kings of western Britannia may not be representative of those further east or in the north. Nor should the poetry of the 6th century bards Aneirin and Taliesin of the ‘Heroic Age’ be seen as showing how earlier or more Romanised ‘armies’ functioned. Woolf wonders if the other leaders Gildas isn’t happy with (but doesn’t mention by name) in these Romanised regions are the iudex mentioned by him:

Reges habet Britannia, sed tyrannos; judices habet, sed impios —“kings Britain has, but tyrants; judges she has, but wicked ones” (DEB, §27)

… if they are not one and the same as Gildas later says the kings also act as judges. Higham thinks these leaders were the rectores, speculatores and duces (more on this later).

The question often arises as to why use feoderati and bucellarii when you could use your own indigenous people? There are two answers: 1) Using, what has been termed the Gurkha Syndrome by military sociologist C.H. Enloe, you chose the most feared warriors to deal with the feared enemy, just as the British used the Gurkhas, and ‘Saxons’ were certainly feared. 2) Contrary to public perception, mercenaries are actually more likely to fight because that is their chosen profession, unlike some ‘levyman’ plucked from the fields. It also means you can keep them active for longer as they don’t have to farm. This is not to mention that mercenaries were very often put at the front, to save a kingdom’s own warriors.*

The more attractive alternative (and one perhaps borne out by the archaeology) might be that the various civitates and/or kingdoms that made up a province had to supply the men when needed for a combined force. Or, they were there to support a provincial army by only having to supplement a smaller group of feoderati and/or bucellarii that were the dux’s personal troop. This latter scenario might have been more acceptable, as any general with a large army could have become a threat himself. This would see him with his own smaller unit, or field army, for deal with raiding and the like, and supplemented by a combined large force for set battles. If this is how a historical Arthur did function it would be somewhat of an irony, especially if we add the possibility that he was of mix Hibernian (Gaelic) and British blood (More on this below or see THIS blog). Imagine: an Hiberno-British Arthur fighting with Germanic/Scandinavian/British/Hibernian mercenaries! Sacrilege! Yet perfectly normal for the time.

To need a provincial army, of course, would require there being a large enough enemy or enemies to warrant it, with a large enough border to protect, perhaps covering more than one civitas/kingdom. Or, maybe, it could be used to bring more force to bear at a particular point along that border than could be supplied by a single civitas/kingdom army? Is this restructuring what Ambrosius Aurelianus started and what enable the Britons to fight back?

How would they be paid? Well, they would be paid in kind, in some way; certainly not with money, except old coinage to melt down. They could also have been given food, metals or a share of any booty. They may have been promised land, either during service or after it.


Most Roman emperors didn’t lead from the front (although, of course, some did) unlike the Hellenistic kings, like Alexander, who did fight at the front.* How did the British kings in the 5th century see themselves? like their ancient British forefathers or like mini Roman emperors who used generals or what the later Welsh would call the pen teulu (captain of the kings retinue)? Could have been a mixture of course.


The Late Roman army had to change its tactics in the 5th century and learned that large pitched battles were not always the answer and smaller guerrilla type operations were the way to go against the northern barbarians. A type of warfare that had been used against them for centuries. It’s this kind of warfare that Collingwood envisaged Arthur undertaking as a comes with a field army against his enemies, who very often may not have been united themselves. It’s always possible that a commander of a provincial force would fight this way at times, as set battles with one large army against another is not always the answer. There would have to be offensive tactics used with surprise attacks on strategic points. Arthur’s supposed battles, many at rivers, may have been just this. Cutting off supply routes or attacking places such as salt production sites or mineral mines could also have been a method used.

(* My thanks to the Ancient Warfare podcast: War as a livelihood – Mercenaries in the Ancient world - of 04/03/09 for this information.)

In Part Three we’ll look at what Gildas called rectores. These could be provincial governors and I’ll explore if this is what Gildas meant by the term, as well as looking at the five provinces that made up the old Roman diocese of Britannia and the various theories as to some of them still existing in Gildas’s time.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to comments, thoughts … and corrections,



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King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part One

Map of Roman Britain, showing the road from Cl...

In this seven part blog I want to explore if an historical 5th century Arthur could have been (not was) some equivalent of a Late Roman commander or a general, and what this might have meant.  Of course, it was the late, great R G Collingwood who put forward the possibility of Arthur being a comes (‘count’) with his own field army back in the 1930s, but I want this to be more of an exploration of the possibility of this and other Late Roman military positions; there can be no certainties. Of course, the question of someone in these positions applies whether Arthur existed or not. (For those new to my blogs, it might be worth you reading ‘In Search Of The ‘Original’ King Arthur’, ‘Valentia – The Fifth Romano-British Province’,  and ‘Arthur – King or Commander’ blogs first).

There is no way of knowing what a Late (or Mid) 5th century Arthur was, if he ever existed, but there is always the possibility that, if he did, he could have been a provincial comes, dux or tribunus. This might sound odd and not seem possible to some who think of British Britannia as a fragmented, old Roman diocese ruled by ‘Celtic’ kings and petty kings (which it must have been in parts), but there are some eminent scholars, such as Ken Dark, Roger White, David Dumville and Nick Higham, who think that there could have been at least two of the five the British provinces still in existence, in some form, in the late 5th century and beyond. (Higham and Dark actually wonder if the whole diocese survived intact up until the mid-5th century at least, but with the former scholar thinking the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were in charge in at least two of them with a third paying tribute to them). If it was the case that they existed, then these provinces may have had some kind of provincial army, and this would probably have needed some kind of commander or general as their military leader, and not one of the kings … if it had them.

However, we should also keep in mind the thoughts of Neil Faulkner (The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain, 2004) and Chris Wickham (Framing the Early Middle Ages, 2006), whose interpretation of the evidence is that Britain almost completely fell apart c.375-425 and had to build itself backup again from scratch.  Also Stuart Laycock in Britannia The Failed State: Tribal Conflict and the End of Roman Britain (2008) and UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia (2010), written with Russell Miles, comes to a similar conclusion. This doesn’t mean Britannia couldn’t have built back up again, although not in a Roman material way, or re-united when needed. Also keep in mind Nick Higham’s theory, which may make the scenario I will explore here impossible.


First, a look at what these Late Roman military positions were. I’m very grateful to Robert Vermaat for letting me quote directly from his Fectio Late Roman reenactment website: ( )


When Constantine segregated the civil and military functions, the military commanders ceased to be civil governors (although in some cases there were exceptions). Provinces were henceforth commanded by praeses [governors] without military functions, while the troops were commanded by duces. There seems to have been no sharp distinction between comites and duces.

The comes (title) was originally a title (lit. meaning ‘companion’) for members of the entourage of the Emperor, not a rank. Later the title became known for several functions, both military as well as civilian. These functions were formalised by Constantine, by creating titles such as the comes sacrarum largitionum (finance minister), the comes domesticorum (commander of the protectores domestici).The military version of the title was the comes rei militaris, a vague title without a description of rank or importance, which could describe commands varying from minor frontiers to overall army command of a magister militum.
The comitatenses or field armies of a certain region [was] always commanded by a comes (such as the comes Britanniarum) and was therefore possibly higher in status than a dux. A comes, however could, like a dux, also command a regional army group, indeed like the comes Litoris saxonicum per Britannias (count of the Saxon shore) or even frontier sections (law codes prove the existence of a comes limitis). Comites could also command vexillationes of the mobile field army in the field.

The dux (rank) was originally a title (lit. meaning ‘leader’) of an officer acting in a temporary capacity above his rank, commanding a collection of troops in transit or in temporary command of a single unit. From the third century, a dux became a regular officer. After Constantine, the dux commanded the provincial troops (the comitatenses and palatini falling under the command of the magistri or comites). Such a command could encompass a (part of a) province (styled after the name of that province, such as the dux Aegypti) or even several provinces (such as the dux Britanniarum (duke of the Britains), who commanded the regions straddled by Hadrian’s Wall). Another name could be dux limitis, but these names were not standardised.
The dux ranked directly below the magister militum (but could appeal to the Emperor) and was responsible for the military protection of his own sector, including the military infrastructure, the collection and distribution of provisions and the military legal system. Valentinian I raised the duces from equestrian to senatorial status, which also reflects the ‘inflation’ of some military commands, which saw the replacement of several duces with comites during the fifth century. A dux probably received fifty annonae plus fifty capitus.


The tribunus (rank) was the commanding officer of a new-style unit, which could be a regiment of auxilia palatina or a numerus or anything in between. Tribuni of the scholae were commanded by the magister officiorum, but tribuni also commanded cavalry vexillationes, new-style auxilia regiments as well as the new-style legions of the field army, but also the old-style cohorts of the limitanei. By the mid-fifth century a tribunus might also be styled a comes, under the debasement of Roman military titles. By the sixth century a papyrus describes an old-style cohort commanded by a tribunus, eight senior officers including the adiutor (regimental clerk), the primicerius, six ordinarii and six others, probably the centuriones.
A so-called tribunus vacans was an officer temporarily without unit serving as a staff officer. These tribuni vacantes could also serve on special duties – when Ammianus was on a mission from Ursicinus to relieve the magister peditum Silvanus of his command (read “arrest him”), he and his nine fellow domestici were accompanied by several tribuni vacantes. And in Egypt, a tribunus civitatis might combine military and civilian duties, acting like a governor. Tribuni could also be in charge of barbarian groups, as the example of the Tribunus gentis Marcomannorum shows. We know of one Agilo who was a tribunus stabuli in 357. These men (later comes stabuli) were responsible for gathering levies of horses for the army. A tribunus probably received eight annonae (plus four capitus if cavalry).


(This latter position could, apparently, become a governor (as well as a comes), which we’ll discuss in Part Three. The bold type is by me, to indicate that even a civitas could have a tribunus/governor).

Now, I am not suggesting that any position in Late (or Mid) 5th century Britain would be exactly the same as that found in the late empire, but that it may have been something similar, using the Roman military names; just as 6th century inscribed stones in Wales have given us ‘protictor’ (protector), another Roman military rank, magister (magistrate or ruler), presbyter (priest) and medici (doctor), but the first two may have had a very differing meaning in Britain at the time. The genealogy of Demetia (Dyfed) also gives us a Triphun (Harleian MS 3859), which could be the Brittonic form of tribunus, although there is some doubt to this as it could be from the Welsh word tryffun, meaning “panting”. (My thanks to Christopher Gwinn via the Facebook King Arthur Group for that information). It is interesting that protictor (Dyfed), magister (Gwynedd), medici (Gwynedd) and Triphun (Dyfed) all occur in regions that were the least Romanised, especially Gwynedd, but would become more Romanise – or Latinised – after the Romans had left.

(For more information on inscribed stones of Wales: )

The Life of St Germanus also tells us that on his visit to Britain in 429, to tackle the Pelagian heresy, there was a man of tribunus rank and, as Nick Higham points out (The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century, 1994), Gildas in the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (DEB) mentions duces (the plural of dux) and he seems to imply that they could be both kings (tyranni or rex) and none-royal. Of course, Higham places Badon much earlier than others, 430×440 and, therefore, Gildas writing the DEB to 479×484. He also believes the ‘Saxons’ to have been the overall victors, and not the Britons and his conclusions leads him to deny the possibility of a figure of Arthur ever existing. Personally, I think, even under Higham’s theory, it doesn’t mean Arthur couldn’t have existed, he was just made into more than maybe he was. Most scholars, however, do not agree with Higham’s assessment of the evidence.

In Part Two we’ll look at what structure a British provincial army could have taken.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to any comments, thoughts … and correction,



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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.


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,


* 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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Baillie’s Comet & Gildas

Image of comet C/1996 B2 (Hyakutake), taken on...

Halley's Comet

Some years ago Professor Mike Baillie brought out a book called ‘Exodus to Arthur: Catastrophic Encounters with Comets’ (Batsford, 1999). As Wikipedia says: “[it] relates the findings of his tree-ring studies to a series of global environmental traumas over the past 4400 years that may mark events such as the biblical Exodus, the disasters which befell Egypt, collapses of Chinese dynasties, and the onset of the European Dark Ages.” But he also relates it to Arthur and even the Grail. In his latest book, New Light on the Black Death: The Cosmic Connection (Tempus, 2006), he explains how the tree-ring and Greenland ice core evidence and descriptions in annals, myths and metaphors adduced in support of the global environmental downturn at AD 540, which included the Justinian plague, also applies to conditions extant at the time of the Black Death in AD 1348. He went a little far with his ‘Arthurian’ connections (IMHO) so I will just concentrate instead on these finding and how they might relate to the writing of the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) by Gildas in the 6th century.

When I first heard of this, and this event’s dating, and that of when Gildas is thought to have written, it made me wonder why Gildas wouldn’t seize on such a event of Biblical proportions and use it in his writing? Did this mean he had to have written before, or well after this event? Or was this a case of him having waited 10 years before completing and ‘publishing’ his work, as he tells us in the DEB?


First, the event. To do the information justice, I would like to quote part of Professor Baillie’s paper on this ’540 event’, missing out the Arthurian and Grail stuff, to help clarify exactly what the issue is here. You can skip passed it if you wish. You can also download a PDF version of it at the following URL:

M G L Baillie School of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen’s University, Belfast

I recognize that going into a field such as Celtic myth is much like going into a card game where all the other players are experts at the game. There is a good chance of the outsider, me, coming to grief. The only real defence I have for sitting down with the experts – the Celtic scholars – is the fact that I do have access to a body of precisely-dated information that never existed before; the results of several decades of tree-ring studies. This means that I come to the card game, not so much with an ace, but, at least, with a joker. I therefore feel confident that I can take at least one ‘trick’.

The Background

In the early-mid 1980s the tree-ring group in Belfast completed one of the worlds longest tree-ring chronologies (Pilcher et al 1984) (At that time there were only five really long regional chronologies in the world; three for oak, namely Ireland, North Germany and South Germany, and two for bristlecone pine from the western United States). Not long after the Irish chronology was completed back to 5289 BC it was discovered that if the chronology was interrogated for narrowest ring events (points in time where numbers of trees from different sites exhibited their narrowest growth rings at the same time) the dates 3195 BC, 2345 BC, 1628 BC, 1159 BC, 207 BC and AD 540 dropped out of the bog-oak chronology (Baillie and Munro 1988). The initial hypothesis was that these abrupt environmental downturns were due to the effects of explosive volcanic eruptions. This hypothesis held up fairly well until the early 1990s when it began to become clear that some of the events were complex and did not seem to conform to what one would expect from point events such as big volcanic eruptions.

Moreover, volcanologists repeatedly pointed out that the environmental effects of even a big volcano should be over in a few years because volcanoes inject material up into the atmosphere from whence it washes out in a relatively short time. So some of the tree-ring events which appeared to last for longer periods – five, ten even eighteen years – did seem to be out of step with conventional wisdom on volcanic effects (Pyle 1989). This was most apparent with the so-called AD 540 event that seemed to span 536-545. As interest developed in the environmental event, which must have been responsible for the narrow rings in the oaks, it became apparent that the event was not restricted to oaks; the rings for 536 and 541 were singled out by temperature sensitive pine chronologies from Northern Sweden and the Sierra Nevada as among the coldest in 1500 years (Baillie 1994). Subsequently the rings immediately around AD 540 indicated reduced growth in chronologies from Siberia through Europe, to North America, to Argentina. Thus dendrochronology hinted strongly at a global environmental downturn. Moreover, there appeared to be no equivalently severe and widespread event anywhere between 540 and the present. The happening at 540 therefore had to be highly unusual.

It was quickly ascertained that other scientists had noted happenings in AD 536. There were descriptions by several Mediterranean writers of a dim-sun event in 536-7 which volcanologists Stothers and Rampino (1983) had ascribed to a major volcanic eruption. For China, Weisburd (1985) had pointed out the catastrophic cold and famines in 536 and the following two years. Interestingly no one had ever previously noticed anything untoward at 540-1-2. So, by the early 1990s a combination of historical sources and dendrochronology hinted at a two-stage environmental event; could it have been a doublet – namely two large volcanic eruptions happening about four years apart with perhaps a re-enforcing effect? However, one had to ask, if that had been the case why was there no reference to the second dust veil, why were the records so quiet on what happened in the early 540s? It was also noted that the plague of Justinian, which seems to have originated in about 540, broke out with a vengeance in 542. Could there be some link between the environmental happenings around 540 and the outbreak of this severe plague?

In order to preserve the (then) current paradigm, various scenarios were envisaged wherein more than one large volcano had erupted in a short space of time, or that there existed a class of volcanoes that were more environmentally effective than those we have witnessed in recent centuries. However, by 1993, revelations about the dating of layers of volcanic acid in the Greenland ice in the vicinity of the AD 540 event – or rather the revelation that there were no acid layers dating to the years around AD 540 – meant that the volcano hypothesis was starting to look thin. This combination of factors allowed a new paradigm to be contemplated – was it possible that the serious global environmental event around AD 540 was not due to a volcano or volcanoes, but rather was due to the next most likely cause of a global environmental event i.e. some loading of the atmosphere from space? In 1994 the first tentative hint of this paradigm shift was published in the journal The Holocene (Baillie 1994). Within a short time it was discovered that three British astrophysicists had published a prior hypothesis, back in 1990 (Bailey, Clube and Napier 1990), in which they had proposed that the period between AD 400-600 had been a period of risk of bombardment by comet debris. It may interest readers to see exactly what the astrophysicists said. They were reviewing the hazard represented by the earth running into swarms of comet debris. They said,

“Overall, it seems likely that during a period of a few thousand years, there is the expectation of an impact, possibly occurring as part of a swarm of material, sufficiently powerful to plunge us into a Dark Age.”

They went on to say,

“The occurrence of Tunguska-like swarms in recorded history is therefore expected. Thus we expect a Dark Age within the last two thousand years.”

They then suggested that the incidence of meteor showers represented the best guide to when such bombardments might have taken place and they singled out two periods namely AD 400-600 and AD 800-1000. Thus these workers provided target date ranges for a hazard from space and our AD 540 event fell neatly into one of them. From a scientific viewpoint this juxtaposition of a prior hypothesis and a contemplated new paradigm has a chilling resonance.” In 1994 the scientific community witnessed the impact of some twenty fragments of the broken up comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 ploughing into the giant planet Jupiter with devastating effect. For those not familiar with those events back in July 1994, some of the impacts were in the 10 million megaton to 100 million megaton range – such impacts are now generally known as dinosaur killers, i e they were of the same magnitude as the impact some 65 million years ago that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs after a successful evolutionary run of about 150 million years.

The dendrochronolgy for Britain, Ireland and other European and Scandinavian countries, as well as other reports from around the world, and the sulphur spike in the ice core, show something major happened, which seems to point to a volcanic event rather than cosmic … unless they got both. The two year duration the ice cores show ties in with what John of Ephesus reports in 535:

“The sun was dark and its darkness lasted for eighteen months; each day it shone for about four hours; and still this light was only a feeble shadow [...] the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes.”

We have reports from Constantinople (John of Lydus) Mesopotamia (John of Ephuesus) and Carthage (Prokopius) of crop failure and famine as well as “failure of bread” in Ireland and famine in China, Japan and Korea; all in 536/7 (China had snow in July and August ). There’s also the entry in the Annales Cambriae (A.C.) of plague in Britain and Ireland, and plague very often leads to famine, or comes after it. Severe drought shows up in ice caps of the Andes in southern Peru roughly between 540 and 560, and droughts lead to famine. This doesn’t include the tree ring data from the USA and Chile.  The trees aren’t growing because of cold and drought, which must have effected crops too. This was, indeed, worldwide.  (Source: ‘The great Maya droughts: water, life, and death’ by Richardson Benedic p229)

What has been observed (by Benedic) is that the latitudes around North Africa had the dark skies for 18 months and those further north, on a latitude with Rome, for 14 months. One might take from this that northern Europe may have experienced the ‘dry fog’ for 12 months or less.


As you may know, in many cultures, including European ones, the sight of a comet was the foreteller of the death of a king, as well as a whole host of nasty things. It wasn’t a good heavenly object to behold, so I can’t see how it would be associated with the Grail, as Ballie suggests! They still believed this in 1066 and children in Martin Luther’s day sang a song about it. (David Talbot THE GREAT COMET AND THE DEATH OF KINGS, 1997). Geoffrey of Monmouth, of course, tells us of one before the death of Ambrosius Aurelianus (Aurelius Ambrosius) and the naming of Uther after it. It would be amazing if this, in some way, did relate to Halley’s Comet in July 451 … but I somehow doubt it.

Mary Proctor notes:

“The comet of A.D. 451 or A.D. 453 announced the death of Attila, and the comet of A.D. 455 that of the Emperor Valentinian.  So widely spread was the belief in the connection between the death of the great and those menacing signs in the heavens that the chroniclers of old appear to have recorded comets which were never seen, such as the comet of A.D. 814, which was supposed to have presaged the death of Charlemagne.”

Whoever reigned in Britain in the 6th Century would have got rather worried in 530 when Halley’s Comet passed by again, observed by the Chinese that year. So, even if Gildas would pass up on mentioning darkening skies would he pass up on such a portent of doom? If this is the case, does this push his writing and Badon even earlier? (More on this below).

The A.C. doesn’t mention the 530 arrival but does mention Halley’s Comet when it passed in 676:

“A star of marvellous brightness was seen shining throughout the whole world.”

Though, interestingly, it does not mention its appearance in 760, 837 or 912, closer to when it was compiled. It doesn’t appear that the Irish Annals mention a comet, that I can see, but they do talk about the “failure of bread” in 536 and call 913 (the year after Halley’s) a “Dark and rainy year“. But it could have just been, well, dark and rainy. However, Annals of Ulster also has as its final entry for AD 912: “A dark and rainy year.  A comet appeared.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for 678 (which is most likely 676) says …

“This year appeared the comet-star in August, and shone every morning, during three months, like a sunbeam.”

… and for 730:

“This year appeared the comet-star, and St. Egbert died in Iona.  This year also died the etheling Oswald; and Osric was slain, who was eleven winters king of Northumberland; to whichkingdom Ceolwulf succeeded, and held it eight years [...]  Archbishop Bertwald died this year on the ides of January.”

This, for them, probably proved the point about what comets foretold.

Of course, Baille isn’t the only one to have theories on a comet (or its debris) being the possible cause of the ’540 event’. The undergraduates Emma Rigby and Mel Symonds under the supervision of Dr Ward-Thompson at Cardiff University believe a much smaller comet could have exploded in the atmosphere, generating the dust veil or ‘dry fog’. Dr. Ward-Thompson says: “The surprising result of these calculations is just how small a comet fragment we have estimated was needed to cause the observed effects.” However, that sulphur spike, although comparatively small, does point to a volcanic event and it may only be small because of the meteorological conditions at the time.

Whatever it was, it may not have even caused the other disasters. They could have just been totally unfortunate to experience a cosmic/volcanic event followed by plague in 537 (if it was the plague) and extremely dry years that caused the stunted tree growth and crop failure. Either way, I believe a series of events such as these – comet in the skies, darkening sun followed by plague – in the space of 7 years would be seized upon by Gildas. IF he did write almost 44 after Badon around 530, or before – a contentious point – then this would take Badon back to 486,or before. I realise this would make Gildas extremely old when he died.


I recently read some very interesting sections from ‘Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire: A Systematic Survey of Subsistence Crises and Epidemics‘ by Dionysios Ch Stathakopoulos, which may be very pertinent to this debate. This is from p25:

“The visitation of the pandemic certainly raised the number of the recorded epidemics in the sixth century and at the same time also the consciousness and the interest of the contemporary writers in such matters. Another possible cause for this interest was eschatological. According to the three prevailing world eras the completion of the year 6000 from the creation of the world fell between 492 and 508. This was the year which Christians held as the advent of Judgement Day. According to the synoptical Apocalypse (Matt 24, Luke 21, Mark 13), the end of days would be preceded by wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes. Therefore it’s not surprising to see the authors of the sixth century develop a particular interest in recording such natural catastrophes.”

Interesting that Gildas didn’t mention this in the DEB, but maybe he didn’t need to. Other 6th century writers don’t mention it either. Could it have inspired him though? He does write about the Last Days in a fragment of a letter attributed to him. Here’s an extract:

“Excessively evil times shall come, and men shall be lovers of self, covetous, boastful, haughty, railers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, impure, without natural affection, without peace, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, holding the good in hate, traitors, headstrong, puffed up, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”

I wonder if the Christians of Britain thought God had changed His mind about Judgement Day until Halley’s Comet reappeared in 535 followed by all these other events, including the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon expansion? Could the Britons indeed have dubbed this heavenly body the Uter Pen Drac? (Sorry, don’t know what came over me, went off into Baillie land there!). There are also two more sections of Mr Stathakopoulo’s work worth quoting, which have a bearing on this discusion. This from p52:

“In order to do justice to the complexity of past subsistence crises it is important to adopt multilateral causation models. It is essential to distance ourselves from pure determinism, ascribing crises merely to natural causes and at the same time not revert to the opposite model according to which these events occur solely as a result of political and economic structures. It was not distribution or availability of food that created food crises, but rather a combination of both.”

This from p55:

“The emerging trend [from his survey] shows a clear predominance of drought-induced subsistence crises in rural and mixed environments and at the time an equally evident preponderance of siege-induced famines in urban centres. Famine caused by warfare have a strong presence both in rural and mixed settings, whereas in urban situations famine and shortages tend to develop when the transportation of grain is disrupted.”

One thing’s for sure; these events can’t be used as a reason why the Britons suffered more than the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, allowing them to take over southeastern Britain. It would have affected everyone. What it may have caused is social stress, leading to more raids and civil war. It is interesting, however, that the ‘Saxon Advent’ possibly occurred in the 450s and they started to rise again from the 540s and 550s. Coincidence? May be. This doesn’t mean the Justinian Plague didn’t hit western Britain more than the east. It very well could have, considering its links with the Mediterranean.


Getting back to Gildas: I suppose the alternative could be that he did write later, say between 544 and 547 (if the death Maelgwn entry is correct) and those events had passed and weren’t in the forefront of his mind. However, if he wrote 44 years after 493 (for example) this would be just when things were nasty, but he never mentioned them. Why might that be? I don’t have an answer, but it’s all very interesting, never-the-less.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts and comments,



Plague and the Origin of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Volcanic Eruptions and European History

Halley’s Comet – Part 1 (Intro and Early Records)


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