Tag Archives: Roman Britain

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

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 it’s placement of some of the northern tribes and will be updated soon.

In the next three blogs I want to look at the various regions, starting with the north, and how a military commander of some kind could fit into the political situations. (Apologies for its length!)


The strongest arguer for a provincial dux in the north probably comes from Professor Ken Dark with his theory on the northerly province (or provinces) as possibly retaining (or reattaining) someone who had a similar command in the north to the old dux Britanniarum. (Not to mention those who favour this region as being where Arthur was from). This, he postulates in both Civitas To Kingdom and Britain & The End Of The Roman Empire, is because all but one of the forts under the command of the dux Britanniarum show signs of reuse into this period (this is the only region were Roman forts were reused and not hillforts) as well as the road from York to the Wall appearing to have been maintained.

As explored in my Valentia – The Fifth Romano-British Province’ blog, this northern area was most likely divided into two, with one of these provinces being Valentia and the other either Britannia Secunda or Flavia Caesariensis (depending on which scholar’s theories you go with) as discussed in the last blog. We don’t know what happened to this division after Roman rule ended, but it’s possible they became one again … if they, indeed, survived. There may be more chance for this (or these) surviving in the area in question as it appears to have been made up largely of the very large civitas of the Brigantes (capital at York), and so possibly less likely to fragment at the time, not to mention because the number of descendants of Roman soldiers there. However, with the amount of Roman soldiers (mainly Germanic or Gaulish) that may have been left here, it’s hard to see how they would give it over to a tribal group(s) or leader(s) … although, by the last decade of Roman period there may have to have been British militias to supplement them. (They would also most likely be married to local woman and have ‘British’ offspring). It’s more likely to be governed by whoever was the most powerful militarily. (More on this below).

In fact, Dark’s theory suggests it might have been a Brigantian based hegemony, centred at York, that would have to have done this. This could be why all these civitates tribal names disappeared. There wasn’t just the Brigantes! There were also the Carvetti (may have become Rheged), the Latenses (became Elmet), the Gabrantovices, the Sentantii, the Lopocares, the Corionototae, the Parisi (became Deira) and probably more, including Bryneich (became Bernnicia). It should be noted though, that some other scholars do not see this region as a united area at any time.

There is another factor that Professor Dark doesn’t consider, and that’s the division of the northern province in the mid 4th century. As explored in my Valentia blog, the Roman expert, J C Mann, argues that this division has to have been the splitting of this northern province (rather than between the Walls) because that was Roman policy when creating a new one in an existing diocese. Whether this was done north/south or east/west, he argues that for it to have been given consular status, which it was, its capital must have been York, the second city … unless this had been changed to somewhere like Chester and Anne Dornier’s theory about Valentia being in the west is right. What it means is that the Brigantian civitas must have been divided also. What then happened to the western portion of this, which appears to have been between the Carvetti (northern Cumbria) and Sentantii (southern Lancashire) civitates? Had it been an area that wasn’t actually Brigantian but was under its hegemony, so was happy to be split from it? We’ll never know, but it would have to be ‘reclaimed’ in Dark’s theory, and there’s always the possibility that it was Coel Hen that started this and was the first ‘overlord’ (in whatever form) of the north. There is even a (tenuous) link given for Coel Hen to Arthur, via Coel’s supposed son-in-law, Cunedag (Cunedda). But, let’s not get carried away! (As an aside, the only poem we have about Cunedda – The Death Song of Cunedda – only mentions him fighting in the east (around Durham somewhere) and west (Carlisle) of this area. No mention of Wales).

Perhaps a telling point is the sharp delineation of the ‘Anglian’ and British areas at the River Trent; the river thought to have been the provincial and civitas boundary to the southeast. There’s also what might have been the difference between the Parisi/Deira region and Brigantia with the former containing ‘Anglian’ settlement on a large scale. Of course, there could have been other reasons for the Trent delineation, nothing to do with military unity or strength, but it’s certainly a possibility that it was a strong northern British force (or forces) that kept them at bay. There’s also the possibilities that the province or civitates that bordered to the southeast were just as worried by their powerful northern British neighbours as they were of the Germanic expansion, and placed (more) Germanic and/or Scandinavian mercenaries in them as a safeguard.


Y Gododddin

It may be from north of the Wall (near the Antonine Wall actually) but this is where we get, what some argue to be, the first mention of Arthur in the collection of poems that went up to make the Y Gododdin.

(The next section about Y Gododdin is copied and pasted from an earlier blog. You can aways skip it if you’ve read it)

Attributed to the bard/prince Neirin/Aneirin, ‘Y Gododdin’ (The Gododdin) is a British poem (actually a collection of poems), the originals parts of which are thought to date to the early 7th century. (Koch, 1999).  It tells of a doomed battle at Catraeth (thought by most, but not all, to be Catterick in North Yorkshire) between the men of Gododdin and their allies against the ‘English’ of what would become Northumbria:  the Bernicians and the Deirans.  In it is contained what is thought to be the earliest reference to Arthur:

He charged before three hundred of the finest,

He cut down both centre and wing,

He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,

he gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.

He said black ravens on the ramparts of fortress

Though he was no Arthur.

Among the powerful ones in battle, in the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

(Jarman, 1990, V99, 64)

John Koch in his translation of the work conclude that this section is part of the original B Text and not a later addition, as discussed earlier, although there are other scholars who disagree with him (Isaacs et al). Even if Koch is right, we still can’t be certain, as explored and mentioned in earlier blogs, which Arthur it refers to: an ‘original’ or, possibly, Artúr mac Áedán or even Arthur son of Bicoir, both of whom could have been active in the area.  If we knew the exact date of the battle we might have a better chance of coming to some informed conclusion.  By this I mean If the battle or the poem took place before Dalriada became the enemy then it could indeed be referring to him.  If it happened after, then it is unlikely.  Unless they were in the habit of praising their enemy.

If Y Gododdin is referring to someone other than the Arthur of Badon fame he was obviously gaining public attention in the last quarter of the 6th century (if Koch’s dating is right!) and the fact that most of the Arthur names occur in the North has led some to the conclusion that he must have originally been from there or had been active there.  It would certainly make sense of Aneirin mentioning him if he was also their most famous ‘local’ hero.  But ‘local’ could mean anywhere from the Hadrian’s Wall northwards.

(To read the full blog of the above, click HERE)


There are going to be a lot of IFs in the next paragraph, but just bear with me:

If Arthur was a dux for this province or provinces, does this help make any sense of the (meagre) information we have for him, such as the Historia Britonnum  (H.B.) battle list, or any other information above? (See THIS blog for a discussion of the H.B. battle list). Well, firstly, I don’t think him being a dux of some kind would necessarily lead to him being called ‘dux erat bellorum’ (leader of battles). If the H.B list is based on a poem (or poems), then it obviously just called him this (in Brittonic) and not ‘dux Valentium’ or whatever. Secondly, if the battle list is anywhere near the ‘truth’ (and it may not be) there are some who place many of these battles in the north. Many of these would be outside these provinces (to their north and south). Only Camlan, if it was Camboglana (Birdoswald) on the Wall (its border), and Guinnion, if it is Binchester, would be within it … if it was one province. If it was two provinces then one would be in each if they had been divided north to south.

This could mean one of several things if we’re looking at a possible Arthur as dux: he helped those Britons north of the Wall against the Picti and/or Scotti; he fought against Britons north of the Wall (and attacking beyond the border was a usual tactic); the battles were the result of the province being expanded (Coel Hen is supposed to have fought around Strathclyde); he fought for or against Britons to their south (same tactic); he helped Britons to their south against Scotti raiders or in a British civil war … or the H.B. list and those who place them in the north are just wrong! Remembering how Gildas complained about civil wars, it could be any or all of these.

There is a good case for a northern Arthur, but, like everything else Arthurian, it is based on information that may not be accurate or, indeed, true. However, this is just as much about the case for the existence of a military leader in the region in the last quarter of the 5th century, and that is a possibility.

In the the Parts Five and Six we’ll look at the other two regions and conclusion on all this will appear in Part Seven..

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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The Fifth Romano-British Province of Valentia – Part Three

Ann Dornier’s Theory

In Part Two I briefly describes Ann Dornier’s theory on the placing of Valentia and in this blog we’ll look more closely at it and what it might mean for later history if she’s right.

Below are quotes from Dornier’s paper:



Ann Dornier (Britannia, Vol. 13, (1982), pp. 253)

“The section on S. Sulian in the Lion Breviary of 1516 begins thus: Fuit igitur beatus Sulianus Jilius Bromailli regis nobilissimi qui regnum Britanniae quod Gualentius dicitur suo quondam tempore strenuissime noscitur g~be rnas s e(.The blessed Sulian was the son of the most noble king Bromaillus [sic Brochmael] who is known to have ruled most energetically the kingdom of Britain which formerly in his day was called Gualentius [sic Valentia]).  Gualentius is clearly a Latinized Breton rendering of the name Valentia.”

What is most interesting is Brochmael is not called the ruler of Powys, when the compiler would have known this was where he was from. This could indicate that the information was from an early date.  It may also show that this was the transitional name for Powys. The quote could make it seem as if this part of Wales, and perhaps all of Wales, was once Valentia, be we must be cautious.

Also, interestingly, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes his Brocmail the consul of Chester (Legecester) – ‘History of the Kings of Britain’, Book 11, Chapter 13. Could he actually have got this right? Did he have access to that same Breton document, or its predecessor, that tells us he was the ruler of Gualentius? (See below).

What is extremely odd about this is why Valentia has even been remembered at all.  There is no evidence of Britons identifying with their province of origin on any memorial stones.  If any location is identified it is their civitas (tribal) origin.

Provincial Capital

Ann Dornier Britannia, Vol. 13, (1982), pp. 255

“Although there are several places which might be properly considered, the weight of evidence seems in favour of Chester.  It has been pointed out that by the early third century at the latest the civil settlement of Chester had acquired independent status.  It was probably the civitas capital of the Deceangli; and by the fourth century the civitas of the Deceangli may have absorbed that of the Cornovii, thus increasing Chester’s administrative importance.  There is a growing body of archaeological evidence that in the late Roman period Chester was more than just a legionary base with a modest civil settlement: there was clearly a very prosperous civilian population living to the west and south of the fortress; and there is the possibility that in the west at least this area was bounded by a defensive perimeter, marked by the circuit of the medieval west wall.  This would bring it into line with such places as York and Lincoln.  Moreover, there are hints from post-Roman sources that Chester may have been a late/ sub-Roman ecclesiastical metropolitan, and therefore by definition a provincial capital.  Finally, the fortress of Chester may have been of greater military importance in the late period than has hitherto been thought (see below, pp. 257-8), and this may have been a contributory factor in the choice of Chester as the provincial capital of Valentia.”

Whilst the geographer Ptolemy (2nd century) tells us that Chester (Deva) was part of the Cornovii civitas, there are those who doubt this on archaeological grounds.   (Actually it wouldn’t be part of any civitas as it was a military region). The status and size of Deva (pronounced ‘Dee-wa’) and the civitas of the Cornovii would have changed through time and depended on whether or not the legion was in the city and, as argued by Webster (‘The Cornovii’, 1975, p.17) and by Keith Matthews – aka Bad Archaeology blogger -  (Arthurnet, March 2003), no one can be certain where the Cornovian northern boundary may have ended. Although many have placed its territory as far north as the Wirral Peninsular and the River Mersey based on Ptolemy, Webster guesses it ended much further south, somewhere between Whitchurch and Chester, south of Holt, based on the archaeological evidence.  This ‘boundary’ could have changed many times depending on many factors.  However, this too could fit in with Valentia’s southern border, which may have stopped at the Cornovii’s northern ‘frontier’.  (More blow)


Ann Dornier (Britannia, Vol. 13, (1982), pp. 257)

“Why and in what context would a second consular province have been considered necessary or desirable, and why Valentia?  Several possibilities present themselves.  First it may have had something to do with the imperial ego.  If the creation of Valentia was the work of Constans in 343 and if it was originally called Constantia after him, it may have been given consular status at its inception, befitting for a new province named after the victorious emperor.  Alternatively, if originally equestrian, its elevation may have gone hand in hand with its renaming after the reigning emperor(s) in 369, perhaps as a way of underlining how great was the imperial victory in recovering the province. Secondly, military considerations may have been the important factor …”

There is still the question raised by Mann, that any such status would have gone to the second most important city: this thought to be York. If Dornier is right, however, would this mean that the diocese capital would be moved to Chester (or wherever it was), if there still was a diocese capital after London, or Maxima Caesariensis, was lost?

Troops at Chester

The one fly in the ointment could be the lack of evidence for any major garrisoning of troops at Chester at the time.  There appears to be archaeological evidence of use, but the Notitia mentions no troops there.  However, this could have been patrolled by the Comes Britannium as well as the troops at Segontium (Caernarfon) and other stations along the north coast of Wales.  This might not have lasted long as Magnus Maximus may have taken them with him to Gaul, although I believe there is evidence that it was still in use after 383

Provincial Boundaries

So where were its boundaries, if Dornier is right? Well, firstly, let us address a problem that Dornier does not: if Chester was in Valentia, and Valentia was a division of Britannia Secunda, then that province’s border could not have ended at the River Mersey; if indeed it ever did. It would had to have already encompassed Chester … unless they redrew the provincial borders when it was created. If they did, that would indeed be unique as all known divisions of Roman provinces have been just that: divisions. (Mann, 1998)

This means the division of Britannia before Constantia/Valentia was created would have to have been something like that suggested by the map below, whether it be Secunda or Flavia that is in the north, with this northern province also encompassing North Wales.

Depending on who’s right about where the northern Cornovian territory actually ended – at Holt or at the River Mersey – the redrawing of the boundary shown left could mean it dissected the tribal area, something the Romans tried to avoid. It also means that most of what is now Cheshire wouldn’t have been in a civitas, as far as we know.  Of course, it’s always possible that this area remained under direct military rule, just like that of North Wales to the west. There may be a number of very good reasons for wanting to keep Cheshire under military jurisdiction: the three major salt mines at Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich, as well as the ports on the Dee and Mersey.

This theory does answer the question of Powys being part of Valentia, and Valentia also being below the Wall.  What it doesn’t answer, and it needs scholars to debate it rather than a layman like myself, is whether or not it would be possible for Chester to take the mantle from York and for the provincial boundaries to be organized this way.

In the final blog in this series I’ll look at the possible later consequences if this hypothesis was followed through.

Thanks for reading,



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The Fifth Romano-British Province of Valentia – Part Two

South of the Wall

In the first blog on this subject I looked at between the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall as a possible siting for Valentia. However, a much more likely siting is south of the Wall.  The first argument is that Britannia Secunda was divided to the north and south, possibly along a Tees-Morecambe Bay line. This would be in keeping with Roman policy of creating a new province by dividing an existing one.

As explained by Higham and Jones (‘The Carvetii’, 1985) it’s the western part of the Wall, the home of the Carvetii (roughly northern Cumbria and part of Dumfries and Galloway), that seems to have been most garrisoned by the Romans, so it must have been causing the greatest overland threat. (Not all through the Roman occupation as they wouldn’t have felt safe enough to give it a civitas status at some point). It appears that some of it stretched north of the Wall, hence the garrisons there either to protect them, or, more likely, to keep an eye on them. With this in mind, it may be that the Wall wasn’t so much a political boundary as it was physical.

If this is, indeed, were Valentia was then the division may have been done as much to cut in half the possible tribal confederacy of the Brigantes: probably the largest in Britain. The northwest was also the home of the Setantii (Lancashire) and it is thought that because Ptolemy missed them off his map they were a sept of the Brigantes of the east. This could be why MAMVCIVM (Manchester) is not listed as being in the Brigantian territory. (Other septs probably included the Parisii of East Yorkshire and the Corionototae of the Corbridge area and probably others).  If, as Stuart Laycock argues in his book ‘Britannia, The Failed State’ (2008), north below the Wall were as much the cause of troubles in the 4th century as those beyond of the Antonine Wall, then it might make sense to ‘divide and conquer’ by splitting Britannia Secunda. (Alfred P Smyth in his book ‘Warlords and holy men: Scotland 80–1000‘ comes to the same conclusions as Laycock).

Again, if Valentia was here its provincial capital could be Carlisle, although it would be odd (as explained later) why anywhere other than York would be given a consular status, which Valentia’s capital was.


Another candidate for Valentia is what is now Wales, or a part there-of, which then is thought (by most) to have been in the province of Britannia Prima. This is given credence partly because of a 16th century Breton document that says Brochmael was a ruler of Gualentius, the Latininized Breton version of Valentia. The Brochmael in question is Brochmael Ysgythrog, a 6th century ruler of Powys; which is thought then (but not proven) to have straddle what is now the borders of England and Wales.  It may be argued that what was meant was Wallia or Gualia, the Latin name for Wales, but it’s hard to imagine a Breton getting this wrong. (More on this below).

The downside of the whole of Wales being Valentia is the evidence given by Ammianus.  Even if there were raids happening down the west coast of Wales, most of the trouble appears to be in the north of Britannia, under the Wall. However, Wales certainly was a militarized region with only two (known) civitates in the south: Demetia (southwest) and the Silures (southeast).  The other (known) tribes of the north, the Ordovices, the Gargani and Deceang(l)i, were under military rule. This itself might point to just how much trouble these tribes, or the Irish, of the area where.

Another theory

Before getting to what I think may be the most interesting theory as to where Valentia might have been in the next blog, it is worth exploring another theory of where the other provinces were first, and yet another siting of Valentia.

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

As the map above (or left if you’re reading this via email) shows, the names of Britannia Secunda and Flavia Caesariensis are swapped.  This theory comes from a paper by J.C. Mann entitled ‘The Creation of Four Provinces in Britain by Diocletian’. The changing of the names of these two provinces he explains as follows:

“As Richard Goodchild suggested to me, in a letter written shortly before he died, the two provinces [Flavia and Maxima] were probably named in honour of the two men who ranked as Caesars in A.D. 297, Galerius and Constantius, employing the gentilicium in both cases, thus Galeria Caesariensis – the London province, since London was the supreme community in Britain and now became the capital of the diocese, and Galerius was the senior Caesar – and Flavia Caesariensis the York province, York standing second only to London as a capital.  When Galerius died in A.D.311 and the title of Maximus was assumed shortly afterwards by Constantine, the latter suppressed the reference to Galerius (whom he disliked) and substituted Maxima, derived from his new title. Thus it is that the names Maxima Caesariensis and Flavia Caesariensis appear in the Verona List, A.D.312/14.

A near parallel to this dynastic naming of new provinces is provided by the case of Valeria: when Pannonia Inferior was divided, the northern part, in which lay the old capital of the province, Aquincum, and the two legions surviving from the Principate, I Adiutrix and II Adiutrix, was named Valeria, in honour of the daughter of Diocletian who married Galerius, while the old name, now Pannonia Secunda, continued in use for the southern part, with its capital at Sirmium and two new legions, V Iovia and VI Herculia.”

He then follows on with a theory on Valentia …

A later example is, of course, Valentia, created after the campaigns of Count Theodosius, in A.D. 367/8. This is surely named in honour of Valens, and it seems very probable that, on the analogy of Valeria, it was formed around the old capital of the northern province, York, and included territory which had fallen ‘indicionem…hostium’ .  This no doubt refers largely to the area which later became Yorkshire, including especially the eastern part, to protect which there was later constructed that string of watch-towers along the north Yorkshire coast, which it has elsewhere been suggested might be dubbed the ‘Pictish Shore’.  The south-eastern part of Britannia Inferior will have become Britannia Secunda, with Lincoln as its capital.”

His argument is, that whatever was the second major province had to be centred around York.  Since Valentia became the second most important province because it was given a consul, then Mann argues that Valentia had to have been on the east,  with York as its capital.

But what if something had changed when Constantia (or whatever Valentia was originally called) was formed … if it was formed not where Mann suggests but to the north as discussed in Part One or on the west side of the Pennines (see below). Could its provincial capital have taken over from York because of the status (or ego) of who created it?

What should also be mentioned is that the signaling stations of Yorkshire weren’t the only things to spring up at this time, but also the Constantian shore forts in the northwest at Lancaster; besides the already existing and remanned forts of Maryport, Burrow, Walls, Moresby and Ravenglass. The latter is known to have suffered a fire and rebuilding work in the mid 4th century.

But will still have that vexed question of Brochmael and this brings me on to the other alternative …

East-West Divide

Ann Dornier (Britannia, Vol. 13, (1982), pp. 253-257 ) forcefully argues that it’s possible that what was the northern half of Britannia Prima and the western half of Britannia Secunda became Valentia with the provincial capital at Chester.

It may be that those west of the Pennines would be happy to be divided from their eastern overlords but there’s no way of knowing. As mentioned earlier,  Higham and Jones tell us the Carvetii region (possibly later to become Rheged) had the largest concentration of Roman forts in Britain; there are over 40 auxiliary forts there, over half with vicus settlements attached to them. ( This has a certain irony to it as this means the most militarized area probably had the most amount of Britons who actually came into daily contact with Roman military might. It was a very different story east across the Pennines in what is now County Durham. This area is believed to be mostly forest and there is little evidence of settlement. (‘Roman Britain and English Settlements’; Collingwood, Nowell, Myres, 1988, p.421).  This could be a very good reason why the Picts had to sail much further south to raid anything of significance.

There is also strength to the argument that some in the east may have used Anglian feoderati to protect them not only from Picts, Germanic and Scandinavian raiders but from their Western British cousins.  The Parisii region may have been particularly vulnerable.

In Part Three I will look in-depth into Dornier’s theory and the possible consequences if she’s right.

Thanks for reading,



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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Three

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


What exactly was going on in those supposed British enclaves in the east … if that’s what they were? Were they also at peace? How would the ‘Saxons’ react in those areas that surround these enclaves after a defeat or defeats? It may depend on the treaty agreed. But what would stop them later on, after 20 years or so? These enclaves either had some serious military power or some kind of ‘friendship’ with the ‘Saxons’ There are theories that the Britons did indeed take back ‘Saxon’ territory.  John Morris puts it forward but so does Professor Howard Wiseman (who may be a physicist but his Early Medieval studies have been quoted by Snyder, Higham and Halsall).

For Howard it may be to do with the later ‘Saxon’ expansion and victories at Bedcanford (identified as Bedford) and other sites in 571, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ACS). These are generally thought to have been British enclaves taken by a newly formed West Saxons kingdom. However, this theory puts forward that after Badon (or even before) the British regained territory and this territory went beyond Bedford. Howard has given me permission to use two maps he created.


Britain c. 530AD


Britain c. 530AD (Based on map by Howard Wiseman)

(Maps used with kind permission of Professor Howard Wiseman.The page containing it can be found at )

Howard explains MAP ONE thusly (with reference numbers removed):

“[...] this map descends into speculation in showing precise political boundaries in Britain at the time of Gildas. However, in many of these I have been guided by the work of the respected archaeologist and historian Ken Dark. I have also been guided by the distribution of archaeological sites [...] The names given to the Brittonic states are those of the corresponding Roman civitates when these are attested by post-Roman inscription, or by Gildas. When Roman names are not so attested, a Brittonic name is used. Some of these (Reged, Gwent, Glevissig) are well-attested in the early Middle Ages, while others (Calchvynydd, Barroc, Ebrauc) are only attested in later documents [...]”

On MAP TWO (with reference numbers removed):

“The above map was scanned from the 2000 book by Dark, which shows 5th and 6th century Germanic cemeteries in Britain. Of these I have erased those cemeteries which came into use only in the later 6th century, according to the maps of Morris. Then I have added Roman towns, villas, and forts for which there is archaeological or literary material indicating probable occupation after 490. The data for these sites are taken from the detailed descriptions in the 1998 book by Snyder, occasionally supplemented by Dark. An example of such archaeological evidence is the presence of coins of Emperor Anastasius (491-518), or datable Mediterranean pottery. An example of reliable literary evidence for occupation is that for Luguvalium (Carlisle), which still had a functioning Roman aqueduct and fountain in the late 7th century. These Germanic and Brittonic sites thus should give a picture of Gildas’ partitioned Britain (c. 530). As the map shows, Brittonic and Germanic sites do fall into reasonably distinct zones. There are a handful of small Germanic cemeteries in what I have judged to be Brittonic zones, and one Roman town, Lincoln (Lindum colonia), with evidence for continued occupation in what appears to be an Anglian zone.”

To read more, visit his web page, linked above. The one thing to note about these maps is, unlike Morris and Dark, they don’t take into account the gaps in settlements and cemeteries, so may give a false picture of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ rule or the true spread of their cultures. But, as Howard says in a personal correspondence, “I was aiming for the smoothest boundaries that would leave (more or less) all the Germanic evidence on one side and all the Romano-British evidence on the other”. They also don’t show areas that wouldn’t be up for settlement by either side, such as dense forrest, heath land or heavy clay areas. Possibly even areas that wouldn’t be settled on because of some superstition or another.  (I’ll deal with this later).  Another thing to note is where Howard has ‘Hill Forts Common‘ he means hillforts occupied at this time and not all Iron Age hillforts pe se. Most hillforts in what is now the borderlands (the Marches) of England and Wales were re-occupied in the Late  4th to Early 5th centuries, but it’s hard to find evidence for this occupation going beyond this.

Back to these late 6th century battles. Howard, quoting from the ASC, says:

“ASC for 571 (perhaps invented later to justify West Saxon territorial claims) Cuthwulf fought with the Britons at Bedcanford (Bedford), and took four towns, Lenbury, Aylesbury, Benson and Ensham. And this same year he died.” – (Howard’s brackets, not mine).

We know where Bedford (Biedcanforda) is … or we assume we know. Lenbury (Liggeanburh) is thought to be Limbury in the suburbs of Luton, although there is a Lenborough southwest of Bedford and northwest of Aylesbury. Aylesbury (Æglesburh) is southwest of Bedford (I used to work there). Benson (Bensingtun) is actually called Bensington and is just south of Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire and Ensham (Egonesham) is generally thought to be Eynsham, just northwest of Oxford. The first question is, if Cuthwulf, who supposedly led these battles, was West Saxon, what was he doing starting his battles in the east and moving west? The answer could be the ASC got the order wrong and Bedford was the last battle. However, it could be that he was from the east and pushed west, taking over West Saxon territory. We’ll never know, but it does make sense of the progression.

So, as opposed to a British enclave based on the Chilterns (later to become Saxon Cilternsætna) and one in the Bedford area, they postulate a ‘bulge’ or ‘corridor’ that was either never under ‘Saxon’ occupation in the first place or was was won back and extended from the Thames Valley, up the Chiltern Hills to and beyond Bedford before or after Badon. This would, of course, cut off some main lines of communication, including part of Watling Street, Icknield Way, the Fosse Way and some river basins from the ‘enemy’. This ‘bulge’ would almost reach St. Albans. Actually, these maps encompass St. Albans, which can’t be right if the shrines referred to (or one of them) was there … and one would think St. Albans’ shrine was. Once again I’m indebted to Howard for pointing me to the following …

“It has been commonly stated that Gildas here, when he talks of martyrs and the unhappy partition, implies that Verulamium and Carleon held shrines which were deprived to the Britons because of English occupation. A more careful reading of this passage shows that he implies no such thing. When he says “I refer to St Alban …, Aaron and Julius … and the others …”, he is clearly referring to martyrs (the history of which he was discussing before being briefly side-tracked into the state of Britain at his time). If he had been referring to their “graves or places where they suffered”, he would have said “I refer to Verulamium …, Carleon, … and other places”. Thus the passage simply implies that there was a partition with the English, and that they evidently held large parts of the country, but it contains no specific geographical information on which parts.”


Howard added: “Regarding Verulamium and St Albans shrine, I haven’t had any luck convincing Chris Gidlow of this [...]”

Could they be right? The archæology (as far as I’m aware) doesn’t show ‘Saxon’ occupation (or culture) to the west of St Albans. If anyone has information to the contrary I’d be very interested to hear about it.

A look at the OS map of Roman Britain shows there are two Roman roads going east/west they could have pushed back on after Badon, if they did: that which goes from Bath (or Cirencester) via Silchester to London and the other northerly route that goes from Cirencester via Bicester to St. Albans. (Another goes north-south from Bicester via Dorchester-on-Thames to Silchester). Between these east/west routes lies the Thames Valley and the Chiltern Hills including the ancient trackway of the Icknield Way.

To have taken the region around Bedford as well may have meant heading north on the Bicester-Towcester road. This push could have joined isolated British enclaves. It makes absolute sense that the Britons would capitalize on a victory if they could, but I’m just not knowledgeable enough to comment on the details and the archæology that Morris, Dark or Howard put forward as possible evidence. It does make sense to these later battles defeating the Britons and the taking of the Chilterns, which was obviously in British hands, where no enclaves but a whole British swathe of territory. But, it also make equal sense that they were enclaves that the ‘Saxons’ strangled. If they were never ‘Saxon’ at this point then it puts a different complexion on the whole debate with the Britons always having the upper hand, as argued by Dark.

Another Theory

However, I will give another possible theory of the fight back that could explain this ‘corridor’ and the ‘peace’. Once Ambrosius started the resistance, a British rebellion began to happen, just like those in the Middle East at the moment. Anti ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (politcal, religious and cultural elements) could have been inspired to break out from their enclaves, or even within ‘Saxon’ regions. This could have happened in regions we’re not even aware of. If Ambrosius could have achieved some sought of unity, or, at the least, coordination, then these, along with pushes from the west and north, would have stretched and shaken the enemies.

Pushes from the west wouldn’t, of course, have been on a ‘front’ but through lines of communication: roads, tracks, river basins. This may not have pushed all elements ‘back’ but turned them into isolated enclaves whilst rejoining British (cultural) areas, making it harder for the enemy to created confederacies and limiting their travel. This, in turn, may have created refuges heading east. The Britons could also have placed their own rulers over some of the enemy territory taken, which may add to the idea of an extended peace. So the politcal map may not have looked like Howard’s above, but like the one on below. I’ve kept St Albans and London as an enclave but, as discussed above, it may not have been:


Britain Post Badon (Mak) - Based on map by Howard Williams

This is just a very rough guess. There may have been more British enclaves in the east and southeast.  (In fact, Professor Ken Dark gives even more British areas than I do in the Midlands, based on the amount of inhumation and mixed inhumation/cremation areas: that’s the squares and star symbols). I’ve added known woodland (although there may have been more) in green and marsh/fen land in blue. I also overlaid a map of the clay soil areas of Britain (not shown here) and, with heavy clays in the Midlands, you could see why there may not have been much settlement there by either side. (Source: )

I’d like to do a lengthy quote from the paper, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval (Rural) by Keith Wade ( ). Date unknown.

“The large apparently unpopulated areas [of the east], especially in west Essex and Hertfordshire, have traditionally been explained as forest, but this may be too simplistic. There is an ongoing debate on the extent of post Roman woodland regeneration, but environmental evidence suggests that, at least in some areas, there was no large-scale woodland regeneration. The ongoing ‘extent of woodland’ debate is linked to the ‘surviving Romano-British population’ debate. The lack of Early Anglo-Saxon sites in west Essex, the Hunts part of Cambridgeshire, and Hertfordshire, has been explained as indicating a surviving Romano-British political entity with a small (initially) Germanic settlement ‘living in controlled circumstances on “Roman” settlements’ (Drury and Rodwell 1980), with surviving Romano-British populations that are invisible archaeologically. Others have explained the gaps as more to do with the difficulties of finding Early Anglo-Saxon sites [...] [Williams’] conclusions, however, were still that ‘there are signs that some land also went out of cultivation even on the lighter soils’ and ‘there was clearly a considerable contraction of land under cultivation in the post Roman period, with woodland growing up over abandoned farmland on the interfluve soils’ but that even ‘on the interfluves’ there is ‘some evidence of Saxon occupation, although whether such settlements were involved in the arable exploitation of these difficult soils is perhaps more doubtful’ (Williamson 1986, 127).”

I’d love to hear from anyone knowledgeable on the interpretation of both this evidence and the archæology for all these areas.  

(Since writing this I have read more on the work of Chris Wickham, Guy Halsall, Ken Dark and re-read Francis Pryor, I realise even more the complexity and varying interpretations of the data. However, what is clear, is how politically fragmented and lacking in elites most of the east appears and how even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sites, such as Mucking in Essex, are being reassessed).

I’m also not sure if this ‘bulge’ theory would harmonise with what Gildas tell us. One would also have to wonder what would convince the Cornovii (or Dobunni) to attack beyond their borders … if they did. The answer might be simpler for the Dobunni as they may have been trying to take some of their lost land back. The Cornovii, however may have wanted revenge for attacks on Chester and Bassa (if these Arthurian battles are, indeed, where some think them to be and if they ever happened). More land would also be a good reason. I think that these reasons would be above an altruistic one of ‘saving Britannia’, although saving themselves and their portion of their province might have had something to do with it. (Interestingly, Dark wonders if these two civitates are ones that were under Roman type administration rather than monarchy at this time).

There would bound to be different factions wanting different things, including some who might think, “The ‘Saxons’ are their problem. Let them sought it out!” Those ‘Saxon’ regions in the Midlands that found themselves isolated  (in this hypothesis) may have swapped sides to survive. (Plenty of evidence of that in history). The Britons could have shown, through their power and their action and, maybe, even through bluff by announcing how united they were though they may not have been in reality, that they were a force to be reckoned with.

None of this takes into account Nick Higham’s theory that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were the ones who had the upper hand after Badon and his assessment that this battle happened (and Gildas wrote) much earlier.

(See comments below)


We also have no idea what sea power either side(s) had. If the Brits could, somehow, have taken control of at least some stretches of the southern and eastern coast, they may have been able to disrupt not only supplies, but immigration and export, for a while at least. There’s probably not such a strong argument for this, but it’s worth considering.

In the next blog we’ll look at just who the ‘enemies’ might have been, starting with the ‘West Saxons’/’Geuissae’ and the ‘West Angles’.

I look forward to any comments.

Thanks for reading,



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A Brief History Of Wroxeter Romano-British City


Postcard mock-up showing CGI and photo composite of the basilica at Wroxeter


(Whilst my blogs are mostly about Later Roman and Post Roman Britain, I thought it was also worth taking a look at the the earlier history of this amazing city.  The images you’ll see here were created by a company I was co-director of called Pastscapes. The modelling work was done by my friend and colleague, Peter Hurst. Texturing, lighting and Photoshop work was done by yours truly).

Wroxeter (Viriconium Cornoviorum) near Shrewsbury in the English county of Shropshire, over 200 acres in size and with 2 miles of ‘walls’, was one of the largest Roman-Briton cities in its time with a population of about 5,000. It even outlived the Roman occupation by 200 years before finally being  abandoned with the arrival in the region of the Angles. The arrival of the Romans in this part of Britain happened in 47 AD – 4 years after they landed in Britannia – when they attacked the hill fort of the Wrekin Hill. The Cornovii tribe of the region – whose territory covered what is now Shropshire, Cheshire, part of Staffordshire, part of Herefordshire, (possibly part of Merseyside), Wrexham, Flintshire and part of Powys – suddenly had new masters. In 58 AD the XIVth. Legion built a garrison fort by the River Severn (Sabrina/Hafren) where Wroxeter now stands.

After leaving for Armenia they were replaced by the famous XXth. Legion in 66 AD who spent the next 24 years here and it’s during this period that some of the Cornovii began to settle next to their Roman masters. This, in time, became a vicus: a settlement near a fort that supplied a number of services to it, such as shops, taverns and various forms of ‘entertainments’; savoury and otherwise!

The people of this settlement probably weren’t too happy when the legion was sent north to Chester (Deva) in 90 AD, abandoning the garrison and demolishing the fortress in the process. Although the legionnaires at this time weren’t allowed to marry the locals they probably made a lot of female ‘friends’. Some of the locals had obviously grown to like this new Roman, imperial way of living as they moved into the now abandoned fort and, with Roman guidance and plans, began to make it into the city we know of today, giving it the name of Viriconium Cornoviorum.

Viriconium may have had Roman overlords but it was essentially ‘British’. It became one of the many civitates; independent administrative centres, governed by the Britons themselves but under the supervision of a Roman provincial administration based in Londinium (London). It became, in effect, the capitol of the Cornovii region. It’s hard to tell whether or not the vast majority of the Cornovii were ‘happy’ with the Roman presence or not. It does remain somewhat of an enigma to archaeologists who still can’t quite understand how a successful Romanised city could exist in, what appears to be, an un-Romanised countryside: the only one of its kind in England. There are varying theories to explain this but none have yet come to the fore. The Cornovii’s feeling towards the imperialists probably were something like most conquered peoples: some liked it, some hated it and those in the lower strata of society didn’t care either way as they’d just swapped one set of masters for another.

The fact remains, however, that Viriconium was doing well even if the rest of its people weren’t behind it. The rest of the population were still living the same way they had probably been doing for a thousand years. Still in roundhouses and still living with their own customs and ways and still speaking their own language. It may have been these very traditions that attracted some of the populous to the city. The Iron Age traditions were all very well for the elite parts of society but there was no chance of furtherment in your life. From what can be gleaned about this society, if you were born into the lower classes, you stayed in the lower classes! The Romans had many faults but at least you were allowed, and encourage, to better yourself. Even slaves could end up in high government positions.

Latin was certainly encourage by the Romans and would have been the only written language as there was no written form of Brittonic at this time. The upper echelons probably learnt Latin because they needed to, but the rest may not have bothered or only learnt enough to get by. Some of the elite would have moved into the city to live in the large courtyarded city houses but others may have stayed where they were. Either way, it is these men who would have made up the native provincial council. The function of the council varied from province to province and there’s no specific information on how they functioned in Britain. It’s thought that they would have had to: raise money, promote annual games and festivals in connection with the Imperial Cult and settle tribal disputes … amongst other duties. (These native cities were even allowed to use British as well as Roman law). These were powerful people who not only had to govern a tribe now under the yoke of the Roman Empire but who were also expected to use their own money to help pay for new public buildings. In the case of the public baths, this must have been a considerable amount, but, as you’ll read below, they may have had some help.

Viriconium had, what is now called, Watling Street running through its ‘heart’: a Roman road that stretched from Londinium (London) through Viriconium, before turning south back down to Caerleon. A road that the modern A5 follows for much of its length to Shrewsbury. Other roads ran north to Deva (Chester) and on to Holyhead on Anglesey (Ynys Môn) on the Irish Sea. This would have meant a great deal of ‘traffic’ passing through the city, both civil and military. It was also the ‘artery’ for the imperial postage system: the cursus publicus.

Major towns and cities would have held the mansiones: staging post inns with stables and resting rooms for the riders of the system. Viriconium’s mansio was situated to the south east of the city. Roman roads could ‘grow’ in height over their history. This is because they would be simply added to. Some roads have ended up 2 meters above their original height, which has meant dwellings beside them having to give up their lower rooms and add another story to the building in order to access it!

A CGI reconstruction of Wroxeter's basilica, c. 130AD

We may have the Emperor Hadrian to thank for help in the building of Wroxeter’s (and other city’s) public baths. There were few public baths around in Britain in the first century AD, but a big building program in the mid second century. Could it just be a coincidence that Hadrian cancelled billions of sesterces owed to the treasury by impoverished municipalities and the baths sprang up after that? Or that a plaque dedicated to Hadrian was erected over the entrance to Wroxeter’s forum? We’ll never know. Whatever the reason, the 30 year gap since the beginning and halting of the construction of the baths was restarted in 150 AD. The forum and bath’s basilica, however, had been completed in 130 AD. The forum was not only a marketplace but a  home to the forum basilica: the seat of power for the tribal council. The bath’s basilica, on the other hand, was a cathedral-sized exercise and socializing hall. Its size shows the important of socializing in Roman society and it is estimated that over 1000 people could have passed through per day.  It was open to rich and poor alike and would have not only been filled with sweating men, woman and children, but with vendors selling their wares including Roman hamburgers!

Cutaway of how the baths at Wroxeter might have looked

The baths weren’t the only addition to Wroxeter at this time as the city boundary was extended and new defenses built. It’s unsure as to why this was done as there’s no indication of a threat at this time. Most of the Empire’s problems were happening much further north. It could be that this was merely done as a show of the city’s wealth or status. The defenses were not of the usual Roman stone wall construction, but more like the Iron Age hill fort ramparts with a ditch and palisaded gravel and turf ‘wall’. We don’t know if the Roman army supplied legionnaires or auxiliaries to guard the gates of the defenses or whether it just had ‘civil’ guards of some kind. The local populous weren’t allowed to be armed so it was either the former or an un-armed latter. This was a prosperous city that may have benefited  from its dealings with the Rome. It was a city living the Roman ideal but with a local flavour.  Its territorial size, fertile agricultural land, mines and salt deposits may have made it the perfect supplier for the large Roman legions based at Deva and elsewhere in its territory.

The bath's palaestra and frigidarium. The outside plunge pool only lasted about a hundred years.

Wroxeter’s important dates go something like this (with a little homour thrown in) …

c. 122 AD The Emperor Hadrian visits Britain and might have come to Wroxeter. Well, it was the most westerly city of their empire and the wine wasn’t bad either!

c.130 AD The forum is dedicated to Hadrian and a large plaque is placed above the entrance to tell us so. The city walls are extended and Viriconium is now the fourth largest city in Roman Britain.

c. 150 AD The work on the massive bath complex shown in our images is restarted after a 30 year hiatus. When completed it is able to take 1000 customers a day – rich and poor, men and woman… although most of the wealthy had their own private baths.  The baths would be open during daylight hours and the complex included the basilica (for exercising), shops, a bar and public toilets. The complex had all the ‘mod cons’ of the day, including double glazed windows!

c. 170 AD The forum is destroyed by a fire – and there was no insurance cover!

c. 306 AD The  baths are refurbished after a long period of neglect. Must have been charging too high an entrance fee!

c. 378 AD The baths are refurbished again adding more buildings. – under new management? It’s this layout that can be seen at the ruins today. (The Romans and many Britons are now Christians).

c. 400 AD Baths mustn’t have been doing well again as the main bath block becomes disused. Maybe the populous were too worried about what was happening to the Empire to bathe!

c. 410 AD As the Romans depart, leaving Britannia to fend for itself, Wroxeter takes on its own administration. In fact, nothing much changes at Viriconium, except maybe for a drop in taxes and not so much Latin being heard around town.

c. 476 AD Cunorix, an Irishman, who may have been a military commander – Philips & Keatman call him a Welsh king – is buried in the town ramparts. Hopefully he was dead at the time.

c. 527 AD The baths and the basilica are partly demolished and changed into a new marketplace, replacing the baths as the centre of trade. Obviously Roman health and cleanliness were out!

c. 542 AD The town centre is redeveloped and a large wooden building replaces the basilica – and that is large! Some believe this may have been for the local warlord, but it’s more likely that the warlords went back to the safety of the hill forts and left Viriconium to the bishop.

547 AD The bubonic plague reaches the area, killing the king of Gwynedd (pronounced something like “Gwinneth”), Maelgwyn (pronounced something like “Malegooun”).

c. 642 AD Now the Anglo-Saxons are in control of most of what is today England, part of the British kingdom of Powys is merged with the Angle kingdom of Mercia and, for the price of peace, the bishop of Viriconium is told to pack his bags and leave what’s left of the city, which now dwindles away to become the village of Wroxeter. In the same year the kings of Gwynedd (Britons) and Mercia (Angles) – that’s Cadwallon and Penda – bash the hell out of King Oswald (Angles) of Northumbria at nearby Oswestry (my home town). Now the Britons, who have been pushed west or just given in to the Anglo-Saxons, are known as “Welsh” and live in “Wales” – both words merely deriving from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘foreigners’ or ‘slave‘- which is why the Welsh prefers to by known as Cymru (pronounced “Cummry”), which means “land of friends or comrades“.

(The above dates are from English Heritage’s Wroxeter brochure)

Source: ‘Wroxeter: Life & Death of a Roman City‘ –  Roger White & Philip Barker


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In Search of the ‘Original’ Arthur – Part Nine

UPDATED 1.6.12


(I was hoping this would be the last blog in this series, so I could end on that auspicious ‘Celtic’ number 9 (3×3), but I’m afraid it’s become even longer!)

There are alternatives, of course, to those regions outlined in the previous blogs. One is put forward as a possibility by Christopher Gidlow in his latest book Revealing King Arthur.  Beside being an excellent rebuttal to the likes of Green, Higham and Dumville, his argument (or one of them, as he forwards several) that there could have been an Arthur based in the north of Britannia is well thought out.  (Of course, he’s not the first to have this theory).

Basing his proposal on evidence given by such credible names as Dark, Wilmott and even Dumville he shows that the north – that is the provinces of Britannia Secunda and possibly Valentia (see THIS blog) – could have survived under Roman military type rule for quite a long time.  Those Roman frontier troops left behind wouldn’t all have decided to take up farming; some would have set up their own petty kingdoms or decided to make a living out of protecting the locals, many of whom had married them.  (This is if the Romans hadn’t left the protection to the locals). This may have amounted to extortion in some cases.

The following quotes are from a paper called ‘The Post-Roman archaeology of Hadrian’s Wall AD 400-1000’ from Durham Archaeology, about the Roman forts of BANNA (Birdoswald – 1), VINDOLANDA (Chesterholm – 2), ARBEIA (South Shields – 3) and VINOVIA (Binchester – 4 -not on the Wall but 30 miles south of it):

“ [...] The south granary was clearly reused, possibly as a hall building, with the hearths at the western end provided for the leading figures in the fort community. If the timber structures were the functional successors of this building, as seems likely, the TPQ for the first is c 388-95. As the Theodosian coin was worn, however, this could be assumed to be later, perhaps c 420. An estimated life of 50 years for each building would bring the close of occupation to c 520.”

A very interesting closing date of occupation.  If the information about the Battle of Camlan is correct, and it happened 21 years after Badon, that could place Arthur’s fall between 511 and  521, depending on whose dating you go with. Could be a complete coincidence of course.

Though Birdoswald and South Shields are the only detailed sequences on the Wall line itself, there is another similar sequence in the Wall hinterland at Binchester (Ferris and Jones 1996, 58). These sequences clearly demonstrate continuity of occupation within at least some Wall forts beyond the conventionally understood end of the Roman period in Britain, and into the fifth century. Further, the character of this occupation clearly changes during the fifth century.

Also at Vindolanda the early Christian tombstone of Brigomaglos dating to c. 500 indicates a late Roman / early post-Roman Christian presence (Jackson 1982, 62), as does other recently discovered artefactual evidence.”

It’s worth reading more about what Tony Wilmott of English Heritage himself has to say.  The following is from an article that appeared on the BritArch website:

Roman commanders Dark Age kings

“[...] It may be that the kind of commander-patronus attested by the large commanders’ houses in the late forts continued to be an important figure as the 5th century went on. These men may have been of sufficient influence to become imperceptibly more like chieftains in control of warbands than Roman commanders. Such an idea would explain the use of the hall as a centre to the settlement. Birdoswald may have become the centre of a small petty kingdom indistinguishable from others with totally different antecedents north of the Wall, or to the west of Britain.”

Birdoswald Roman Fort

Both Christopher Gidlow and, more surprisingly, Francis Prior, have commented that if ever there was a place crying out for an Arthur, it was Birdoswald.

(There could be evidence of many more post-Roman forts on the Wall, many not having their finds published yet, and I’d point anyone wanting to know more to August Hunt’s article on the subject at Robert Vermaat’s Faces of Arthur website. August himself puts forward nearby Etterby (once known as Arthuriburgum) as the site of Arthur’s ‘court)’.

As another proponent for an Hiberno-British or Irish Arthur, Gidlow realises that such positions in the north could have lead to Arthur either rising to a command position or inheriting one.  His ethnic background wouldn’t have mattered a jot, just as those around him could have been descended from any number of ‘nationalities’.   By this point they all would be, essentially, Britons.  Of course, some of these areas would eventually have morphed into kings and kingdoms, as mentioned above.

One does have to wonder how a powerful Hiberno-Briton might have come about here, especially since military service was hereditary; as the same became with later kingdoms in the area.  Historians might be able to leave it floating, but for a story or screenplay you need to have more than that.  If Gaelic blood came from his father, then how would he become part of this military society?  There are only a few possible Hiberno-British units that we know of: those derived from the Attacotti after the so called Barbarian Conspiracy of 369. The Attacotti (Atticoti, Attacoti,Atecotti, Atticotti, Ategutti) are an enigmatic group of Britons (if, indeed they were Britons) as no one can be sure where they were from.  Most place them in the Western Isles, but there is an argument put forward by Philip Rance (‘Attacotti, Déisi and Magnus Maximus: The Case for Irish Federates in Late Roman Britain’, 2001) that they were a sept of the Déisi of Demetia and known as the aichechthúatha (‘client people’), so would have been in southwestern Wales. (There are counter arguments to this on linguistic grounds, which I won’t go in to).

(For further thoughts on the Attacotti, see THIS blog).

An earlier idea I had for a screenplay (and one to which I have recently returned) had this Arthur’s father serving with the Atecotti Iuniores Gallicani (or the Honoriani Atecotti seniores) in Gaul.  After the unit is virtually decimated and his father killed, whilst supporting Riothamus, the remnants flee to Amorica. The 15 year old Arthur then ends up in Dumnonia and the story goes on from there. (In case anyone is wondering … no, the Attecotti didn’t have a dragon as a shield pattern).

So how might Arthur as an Hibernian-Briton be on the Wall? Not because of being Hibernian, but because it appears to have been a closed system?  Well, he could have joined as a mercenary or part of a bucellarii, fighting under a commander, if they were short of numbers.  If his father had his own fianna warband (which would make him a ri fianna), they could have given their services to one of these groups on the Wall and, eventually, stayed with them.  Alternatively, Arthur could have been a ri fianna and done this with his own warband.   If his Hiberno blood was from his mother, the answer is simpler, of course.  However, if Eigr was actually his mother’s name, I’ve yet to find an Irish name that could have sounded anything like it.

(For further thoughts on what military position Arthur might have had, see THIS blog).


The above could take us back to the Campbell genealogy one of which shows a descent to Coel Hen, thought by some to have been the last Roman Dux Britanniarum (‘Duke of the [Five] Britains’) who was militarily in-charge of the Wall area and the northern provinces.  However, no other Coeling genealogy shows Arthur as one of the descendants.

Cunedda’s northern battles

But Arthur also is given a connection to the Coelings via Cunedda who (supposedly) married Coel’s daughter Guaul.  This sounds a little bit suspect as the name means ‘Wall’ … although, I believe it can also mean ‘blood‘.  He may, instead, have given his support to Coel and the Wall … if there was, indeed, any connection.  The poem Marwnad Cunedda (‘The Death-son of Cunedda’) attributed to the 6th century bard Taliesin, but probably a later composer, has Cunedda fighting at Caer Weir (2), somewhere in County Durham just south of the Wall, and Caer Lliwelydd/Ligualid (Carlisle), Roman LVGVVALIVM (1): practically on the Wall.  (Interestingly, this poem makes no mention of Gwynedd!).


You get those who, understandably, try to give Arthur a sphere of activity.  Many can’t accept that there would be a Britannia (and beyond) wide ranging ‘commander’ as Gidlow and others have suggested so they look for battles just in the north, or the east and the south … or just in Wales (Blake and Lloyd).

There is another possibility, beside the one that says these proposed wide ranging battles belong to different Arthurs or they were just made up.  That is that these battles belong to different times in his career, fighting alongside different kings.  This would see him, not as a Britannian Magister Militum, as forwarded by Gidlow, but a ‘general for hire’ figure with his own large retinue.  He would be a mercenary in effect, fighting for whichever province or civitas needed him.  As for him only fighting ‘Saxons’ as the Historia Brittonum seems to imply, I tried to show in my ‘Arthurian’ poem that it would only take one mention of them for us to think these are only group(s) he fought. He could have battled against every one of the various ethnic peoples of these islands.

Even if we could identify a region where he was from it may give us no indication as to where he fought his battles or who were his British allies and enemies.  There’s the added problem of not even knowing what his status was: high king? king? prince? chieftain? general? Magister Militum?  Each of these could give us different options. We don’t know the state of Britannia and how fragmented of united it was. Were the Britannia Secunda and Valentia provinces still in existence? If so, were they allies and did they see themselves as part of Britannia still? Were Britannia Prima and the northern provinces (if Valentia was northern) allies? Would they come to one another’s aid? Each answer give potentially different outcomes.

Could an Hiberno-British Arthur have been at the Wall? It appears as good a place as any of the other sites and I can see why many favour it above all others. Its downside (for an Hiberno-British Arthur) is it isn’t in an Hiberno-British region; but the possible reasons for him being there, outlined above, could answer this.

In the next blog I want to briefly look at the Historia Britonnum and the Annales Cambriae and see what light they might shed on an Hiberno-British Arthur.

Thanks for reading,



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The Fifth Romano-British Province of Valentia

I will be posting a blog soon entitled ‘The Fifth Romano-British Province of Valentia‘. This will be covering the various theories as to where this province was in the Roman diocese of Britannia, but especially covering one that hasn’t been properly considered.



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