(This originally appeared in Wargames Illustrated 140 (May 1999), pp.36-39)
The essential building block for any reconstruction of fifth-century British political history is the ‘historical section’ of Gildas’ On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, which is the previous part of this series was entirely devoted to evaluating that source. As we saw there, it is pretty much impossible to use Gildas to reconstruct a political narrative, although his work has other uses, and this conclusion has a knock on effect on the other sources which purport to deal with the period. I have divided these into three groups: Anglo-Saxon, British and Continental.
A: Anglo-Saxon Sources
Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People[i]
The first historian to take up the baton from Gildas was the Northumbrian monk, Bede, who wrote his Ecclesiastical History in the 730s. Bede used Gildas as his main source, but he added a number of other details. As mentioned last month, he was the first to name Vortigern as responsible for inviting in the Saxons, and he also named Hengest and Horsa as the mercenary leaders. He gives the brothers a pedigree and says that the kings of Kent are descended from them. Bede adds information about the war between the Britons and Saxons and promises to say more about Mount Badon, but then never does! That apart, being a chronographer first and a historian second, Bede gives a number of AD dates (which system he is largely responsible for introducing), putting the coming of the Saxons in AD 449. He also says that Badon took place, not forty-four years before Gildas’ writing (as Gildas seems to say), but forty-four years after the coming of the Saxons, thus, by his reckoning, dating the battle to 493. Bede has little else to say about our period, but he does mention by name two kings, Aelle of Sussex and Ceawlin of Wessex, who turn up in later sources. He says that they were the first kings to hold imperium over the English, whatever that may mean. He says that the English come from three powerful peoples, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and states which kingdoms of his own day were descended from which people. He also has some details, as British history emerges into clearer light at the very end of our period, about kings Aethelfrith of Northumbria and Aethelberht of Kent.
Now, Bede was writing between 130 and 330 years after the event. His main source was Gildas, the problems of whose work we have already seen. Bede probably had a different manuscript of On the Ruin… – perhaps a better one – but otherwise was confronted by exactly the same problems as us in using Gildas, and there is no reason to suppose that he was any more able to solve them than we are. Thus we have to ask what other sources he had. He had a copy of the Life of Germanus, to which we shall return. He had also some royal pedigrees, some, evidently Kentish, origin myths and possibly some oral tradition. None of this latter group of sources inspires confidence.
Royal genealogies or pedigrees are easily, frequently and demonstrably manipulated for what we would today call propaganda. Hitherto enemy kings may be retrospectively made into relatives; rivals and competitors made into brothers or cousins; the number of generations shortened or lengthened; and so on. They also manifestly include legendary and divine personages. Many of the same points can be made about origin myths – in this case the story of Hengest and Horsa. It’s possible that Bede had access to British tradition. As we’ll see, there was a British legendary tradition about all this, and the name Vortigern, ‘the great king’, may have entered his account via this route. Origin myths hardly represent reliable sources, as will be underlined below, especially when they feature semi-legendary figures, and genealogies including people whose names are clearly invented to justify claims to territory (Hengest’s pedigree includes Wecta, Wihta and Wihtegisel, all of which mean ‘Wight’, which island the kings of Kent laid some sort of Jutish claim to). Hengest appears in another fragment of heroic saga, ‘the fight at Finsburh’, and the names Hengest and Horsa mean ‘Gelding’ and ‘Horse’. Pairs of semi-divine brothers and the three ships in which they arrived in Britain are common features of post-Roman origin myth (the latter also crop up in a mostly fictional sixth-century hotch-potch, On the Origin and Deeds of the Goths, by Jordanes). Horsa is otherwise unknown; Bede said his monument could still be seen at Richborough in Kent. Whether or not, as Ian Richmond memorably suggested, this monument was an old Roman tombstone on which only the HORS of COHORS was still legible, this too is clearly the stuff of local legend.
What about Bede’s AD dates? It has occasionally been thought that Bede based these on lost sets of annals.[ii] It can, however, be shown in some detail how Bede worked out these dates, and thus how he was guessing as much as we are today.[iii] That leaves Aelle of Sussex, Ceawlin of Wessex, and the question of imperium. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions both of these figures, placing Aelle in the 480s and Ceawlin in the middle to late sixth century. As we shall see, the Chronicle has no evidential value for the fifth century. It seems most likely that Bede got these names from a Kentish source, probably a source which named kings who had control over Kent. The historically well-attested Aethelberht of Kent (died c.616) is recorded by the Chronicle as shaking off Ceawlin’s overlordship; it does not seem unreasonable to place Aelle some time shortly before Ceawlin, probably in the mid-sixth century. As for what imperium meant, it is now generally thought that Bede’s list of seven kings with imperium is not a straight list of seven ‘Bretwaldas‘ (Anglo-Saxon High Kings). The word Bretwalda only occurs once in all Old English literature (and thus not in Bede)[iv] and so hardly represents a well-known institution. Bede’s list represents five important kings with great importance for his story: Aethelberht of Kent (who invited in the Roman mission under Augustine); Raedwald of East Anglia (who seems to have taken over some of Aethleberht’s power but more importantly put Edwin on the throne of Northumbria); and Edwin (the first catholic Christian king of Northumbria), Oswald (a saint, martyred by the pagans) and Oswy (the king who presided over the Synod of Whitby which established Roman rather than Celtic Christianity as the established belief in England) of Northumbria. Aelle and Ceawlin are added, probably from a Kentish source, for good measure, and the question of why other equally if not more powerful kings, like Penda, Wulfhere and Aethelbald of Mercia, or Ecgfrith of Northumbria do not figure in the list does not arise.
Overall, then, Bede was, like us, guessing: trying to make the best of a bad business. If anything, he was less well informed about the fifth and early sixth centuries than we are. Thus, although the Ecclesiastical History is a hugely important work and tells us a great deal about how people viewed the past in the 730s, and how kings used the past to justify their position, Bede’s book has very little, if any, independent evidential value for the period between about 410 and 597.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle[v]
The same is true, more so, for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written at (or close to) King Alfred’s court in Wessex in the 880s. The Chronicle‘s picture of events was for a long time used seriously as a basis for fifth- and sixth-century history, and the dates it gives found their way into many a text-book. Heaven knows why. Even brief perusal of the Chronicle‘s account up to the very end of the sixth century should reveal that it is all myth and legend. Once again, the chimaera of ‘lost annals’ was adduced, but hardly plausibly.[vi] The structure of the Chronicle‘s fifth- and early sixth-century entries is quite artificial. We begin with the Kentish origin myth, with three named battles thrown in, to which we shall return. Then, without any chronological overlap, we have the foundation of Sussex and the appearance of Aelle (probably, as noted above, quite out of chronological order). Then, again without overlap, we have the story of the foundation of Wessex by Cerdic and his son Cynric. This in itself ought to have given people pause for thought. We see the English settlements build up to their climax: the foundation of Wessex, Alfred’s own kingdom, by Alfred’s own putative ancestors. By the date of the Chronicle‘s composition, Kent and Sussex were sub-kingdoms of Wessex and thus clearly to be subordinated in history.
The Chronicle‘s sources for all this were Bede, whom we’ve just discussed and dismissed, and a similar range of genealogical and other legendary sources, and exactly the same problems occur with this evidence as were mentioned above with reference to Bede. The Chronicle‘s compilers were no fools, though. Barbara Yorke[vii] has shown that the Chronicle‘s account of the foundation of Wessex is, in its structure and overall narrative, exactly the same as its account of the foundation of Kent, but with the names of people and places changed. Wessex clearly didn’t have a foundation legend which could compare with that of its subordinate kingdom of Kent. This would never do, so the compilers adapted the Kentish story to fit Wessex.
Then we have to note that many of the people mentioned are, again, invented to justify land claims; this is most obvious with the ‘Port’ who landed at Portsmouth. For all we know, this punning might have been uproariously amusing in late ninth-century Winchester, but it is hardly the stuff of sober history. A number of sixth-century battles are employed similarly to argue that Wessex has always owned the territories around particular landmarks because it conquered them from the Welsh; note how many of these battles are in the upper Thames/lower Severn region long disputed between Wessex and Mercia. This is not to say that none of the sixth-century battles occurred, nor that they did not involve any of the personages named. The battle of Dyrham may indeed have involved some or all of the Welsh kings named as present: Conmail, Farinmail and Candidan. We just have no way of being sure, and it is much more unlikely that they ruled the three cities named as falling to the West Saxons afterwards. Nor do we know when these battles took place, if they did occur. There could be snippets of sixth-century fact in the Chronicle but at this distance it is impossible to disentangle them from the narrative and structure of the Chroniclers’ propaganda, or from the huge dose of myth, legend and pun with which the Chronicle was injected. All in all, the Chronicle could provide wargamers with some names for leaders and some possible battle-sites, but nothing more.
B: British Sources
Nennius: Historia Brittonum[viii]
About a century after Bede, and about half a century before the compilers of the Chronicle, someone, possibly called Nennius, compiled a ‘History of the Britons’, a ‘national history’ of his people. Nennius (let’s stick with the name given on one of the manuscripts) had access to a number of sources, oral, genealogical, and written. He claimed simply to have made a heap of all he had found, and it looks that way. There is, however, probably much more method amid the seeming jumble of the Historia Brittonum. Certainly, no one ever wrote just for fun in this period, and Nennius clearly had as many political axes to grind as Bede and the Chroniclers. His sources, too, were subject to exactly the same problems. For our purposes, though, Nennius is important for being the first person certainly to mention Arthur.
Nennius has much more detail about Vortigern, Hengest and Horsa. He adds other names and details. Much of this is obviously legendary – stock folk tales about love, marriage and treachery, woven around the bones of Gildas’ account, although some of it seems to have reached Nennius from the English sources to which he had access. He describes the war between Hengest and the Britons in Kent and, like the Chronicle, has three battles gradually culminating in a triumph … except that this time it is the Britons who win! As N.P. Brooks has shown,[ix] there was a common store of legendary material about all this, which could be drawn upon and manipulated for political reasons. It is now impossible to know which version, if either, is the ‘correct’ one. Was there a ‘correct’ historical foundation in any case? We shall never know. Nennius’ other stories about Vortigern are even more clearly mythical – stories of dragons fighting in caves, fire from heaven, miraculous prophecies by St Germanus. More difficult to pin down is Nennius’ other mention of Vortigern, his struggle with Ambrosius, and the battle of ‘Wallop’ (!). This snippet is impossible to evaluate, but perhaps there is something there (though the general back-drop of the rest of the work doesn’t inspire confidence). Perhaps… What is certain is that it is not a sound basis for pushing the chronology given by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle back by 21 years, as Morris famously proposed. Nennius’ attribution of dates was every bit as much guess-work as Bede’s, and very probably more so (there were no AD dates before the eighth century).
So we come to Arthur, dux bellorum (Duke, or Leader, of Battles) who, says Nennius, fought alongside the kings of Britain. Nennius lists twelve battles of Arthur, culminating with Mount Badon. From the text itself, it is obvious that Nennius’ list comes from a heroic poem. The problem (apart from the facts, really irritating to wargamers if no one else, that the participants in and circumstances of these battles aren’t given, and that no battle can be located for sure!) is that such heroic poems tend to associate famous battles of the distant past with equally famous past leaders, regardless of the fact. The text itself reveals some fairly obvious poetic license (three hundred killed by Arthur alone) and poetic structures. It is difficult to pin many hopes on the sequence given; anyone with a vague knowledge of Gildas would know that Badon ought to be last (I say a vague knowledge, since Gildas says Badon was almost the last slaughter of the English). And it remains odd that Gildas does not name Arthur at Badon (see last month); if anything he associates the battle with Ambrosius Aurelianus.
All these are weighty problems, but I am not entirely swayed by them. As far as I know, apart from Badon none of these battles is otherwise mentioned in any source or associated with another hero, and certainly not in the other early Welsh heroic battle lists known to us. This makes the passage even more enigmatic, but it also renders it rather more difficult to be entirely dismissive of Nennius’ list. If this was a list of great battles of history and myth lumped together and associated with the legendary ‘King Arthur’, then why have they all otherwise been forgotten in Welsh tradition?
Oliver Padel[x] has rightly, however, drawn attention to the fact that the Twelve Battles is not Nennius’ only passage about Arthur. Arthur also appears in clearly mythical contexts, and one is obviously the forerunner of a legend in the late medieval Welsh Mabinogion collection. Drawing upon other Celtic legend, Padel shows that Nennius’ Arthur inhabits a common Celtic legendary twilight zone, also occupied by giants and monsters. This is an extremely important point, and very difficult to ignore. But, again, Nennius was writing a long time – perhaps 350 years – after the battle of Mount Badon (if we can use his association of Arthur with that indubitably historical battle as any sort of chronological index for Arthur’s lifetime). It is very possible that Arthur could have acquired a legendary persona during that time. After all, there is no reason to doubt Ambrosius Aurelianus’ historical reality, yet he also has legendary associations in Nennius’ work. More flippantly, one could say that Elvis Presley only died twenty or so years ago yet already, in popular culture, inhabits a twilight zone populated by aliens…
There are huge problems, then, with Nennius’ account, which certainly does not constitute ‘proof’ by any rigourous standards, but there is still a glimmer of hope there for those who want to believe in Arthur. You do not have to be uncritical or intellectually lazy to postulate at least a possible historical character behind Nennius’ hazy and bizarre account. And at the very least he gives us a list of post-Roman battles!
The Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales) are a late, tenth-century compilation. They mention the battle of Mount Badon, which they associate with Arthur and (presumably drawing upon either another version of Nennius, or of his poetic source, or another poem entirely) say he bore the cross of the Lord on his shield. They also mention Arthur’s death at the battle of Camlann where Medraut (the later Mordred) also died (note that they do not say that they were on opposing sides). The problem, of course, is that these are very late annals with no clear sources for the period before about 600.[xii] Their sixth-century entries are almost certainly inventions based upon a mixture of speculation from Gildas and later (at least) semi-legendary materials (themselves probably drawing upon Gildas to some degree). This, by this date, is very likely all legend. It is thus impossible to put any detailed historical weight upon the testimony of the Welsh Annals. At most, their information about Badon might (might!) constitute an independent pre-tenth-century association of Arthur with that great battle.
‘Aneirin’ and ‘Taleisin’: Welsh ‘Heroic’ Poetry[xiii]
Our next sources are very difficult. A body of heroic poetry in Old Welsh exists, attributed to the great bards Aneirin and Taleisin, and purporting to be contemporary with British heroes and battles of the late sixth century. They contain a great deal of, admittedly poetic, detail about British warfare (between Britons and between Britons and Saxons) and also contain a reference to Arthur. One warrior is praised for his prowess, but ‘he was no Arthur’. The problem is that these poems are very nearly impossible to date. Some have argued that they are indeed of c.600; others that they belong much closer to the date of the manuscripts which preserve them, the twelfth century. Various dates in between have also been proposed, most plausibly the ninth century. The arguments are very technical, based upon Old Welsh philology, and do not seem very susceptible to resolution. The most recent analysis, by J.T. Koch, argues for a mid-seventh century date for the essence of the poems. That would give us some interesting data for at least the latter part of our period, but even proponents of an early date still have to admit that there is a long period between then and the poems’ transcription during which all kinds of later more spurious material could have been (and demonstrably was) introduced. One such example, sadly, might well be the reference to Arthur.
Before leaving the British sources we ought to mention the late Celtic saints’ lives. As mentioned in part 1, these were much used by John Morris, but their historical value was demolished by David Dumville.[xiv] They are late, unreliable, and influenced by later myths and legends. There is no reason to assign them any evidential value for the fifth and sixth centuries.
C: Continental Sources
Zosimus: The New History[xv]
Britain disappears from most continental sources too between 410 and about 597. Nevertheless, there are a few relevant sources, which we ought to mention. Zosimus’ New History written in the Eastern Roman Empire around 500 contains a story about how the Emperor Honorius, in 410, wrote to the cities of Brittia and told them they would have to defend themselves. Assuming that Brittia is Britain, this has been used as the basis for the date of ‘the end of Roman Britain’. Unfortunately, Brittia might be Bruttium in Italy, which makes as much sense in the context of 410. Most historians now accept that Brittia is Britain, but the grounds for this certainty are far from clear. As I argue elsewhere,[xvi] Honorius’ letter is, in the context of his own legislation, more likely to relate to local law and order than to high level provincial defence. Other sources allow the last episode of Roman British history, the usurpation of Constantine III, to be plausibly reconstructed in some detail,[xvii] so that need not detain us here.
Constantius: The Life of Germanus of Auxerre[xviii]
A source which has had even greater impact on British history is Constantius’ Life of Germanus of Auxerre. This saint lived in the early fifth century and, after a career as a soldier, became bishop of Auxerre. Perhaps in the 420s, he visited Britain and helped resolve a religious dispute in Verulamium (St Albans). He also helped defeat a barbarian invasion at the ‘Allelujah Victory’, so-called because the British waited in ambush and then leapt out with cries of ‘allelujah’ causing an immediate enemy rout. The Life also says that Germanus returned to Britain in the 440s. Constantius met one of Germanus’ companions on his first visit, and it seems that this source does give us a generally reliable snapshot of early fifth-century Britain. Sadly, the second visit has, on the grounds of the chronology of Germanus’ life and known events, and on the basis of literary analysis, been shown to be a fictional episode. The Life was used by Bede and Nennius.
The Gallic Chronicles
Finally, there are the Gallic Chronicles, which make a couple of very bald references to Britain, and to Saxon raids and domination there. These snippets also, for a long time, took their place as established ‘facts’ of post-Roman British history. Unfortunately, in spite of a valiant attempt to argue for these sources’ accuracy, they have been conclusively shown to be entirely without detailed evidential value, and quite artificial in their chronology, in spite of their contemporaneity with events.[xix] Such is the way of late antique writing!
All in all, this fairly exhaustive catalogue of doom and gloom shows that we have barely any reliable written data all for a political narrative of British history between 410 and 597. We do have a few characters’ names and some battle-sites, but we must give up any attempt to write or reconstruct a detailed political or military history. That has to be left to novelists (at least those writers who are up-front about being novelists!). But there are other questions we can ask, and other scraps of information which can be taken from the sources, especially the Welsh poetry and Gildas. We will come back to these. More importantly, there is a huge body of other, difficult but reliable, evidence which we can use to give us an idea of what fifth- and sixth-century Britain, and its politics and warfare were like. That evidence is archaeological, and to that we now turn.
[i] The best translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is that in the Oxford World Classics series, translated by B. Colgrave, with notes by R. Collins and J. McClure.
[ii] This approach is found in J.N.L. Myres, The English Settlements (Oxford, 1986) – a book sadly twenty years out of date even when it was published.
[iii] P. Sims-Williams, ‘The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle.’ Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983), pp.1-41.
[iv] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript A, sub anno 838, where it is, in any case, a scribal error. The scribe wrote Bretwala (Briton/Welshman) and then, realizing this made no sense, squeezed in a ‘d’ to make Bretwalda, a word which ought to mean ruler ‘of Britons’ or ‘of Britain’.
[v] The Chronicle is still best read in D. Whitelock (ed.), English Historical Documents 1 (c.500-1042) 2nd edition (London, 1979).
[vi] Once again, as in Myres’ The English Settlements
[vii] B.A.E. Yorke, ‘The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the origins of Wessex’, in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester, 1989), pp.84-96
[viii] J. Morris (ed. & trans.), Nennius. The British History and the Welsh Annals (Chichester, 1980).
[ix] N.P. Brooks, ‘The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent’, in Bassett (ed.) The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (above, n.7), pp.55-74
[x] O.J. Padel, ‘The nature of Arthur’, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (Summer 1994), pp.1-31.
[xi] As note 8.
[xii] D.N. Dumville, ‘Sub-Roman Britain – History and Legend.’ History vol.62, no.205 (1977), pp.173-92; D.N. Dumville, ‘Gildas and Maelgwn: Problems of dating’, in M. Lapidge & D.N. Dumville (ed.), Gildas. New Approaches (Woodbridge, 1984), pp.51-60.
[xiii] The Gododdin of Aneirin. text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain, ed. & trans. J.T Koch (Cardiff, 1997); Taliesin Poems. New Translations, trans. M. Pennar (Llanerch, 1988).
[xiv] As note 12
[xv] Zosimus. New History (Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, Byzantina Australiensia 2). trans. R.T. Ridley (Canberra 1982).
[xvi] Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West (Cambridge, forthcoming).
[xvii] J.F. Drinkwater, ‘The usurpations of Constantine III (407-411) and Jovinus (411-413)’, Britannia 29 (1998), pp.269-98.
[xviii] F.R. Hoare (trans.), The Western Fathers (London, 1954), pp.283-320
[xix] R. Burgess, ‘The Dark Ages return to fifth-century Britain: The ‘restored’ Gallic Chronicle exploded.’ Britannia 21 (1990), pp.185-96; I.N. Wood, ‘The fall of the western Empire and the end of Roman Britain.’ Britannia 18 (1987), pp.251-62.