Hi folks! Today we’re continuing with politics in the “Dark Ages” of Britain- that period of time when we have so few records, the island is no longer Roman and the Anglo-Saxons are just beginning to take over. Last time we talked about what kingship meant in this era. Today we’re going to start with the political environment, as we understand it, in what would eventually become Scotland, but is anything but in The Arthurian Age.
Hopping in the Wayback Machine
Today, the border between England and Scotland is not much removed from what was established during the Roman Empire’s occupation of Britain. This was, basically, Hadrian’s Wall, an epic engineering feat that established a stone wall with a ditch, forts and road stretching 73 miles from the Irish Sea near Carlisle, to the North Sea near, appropriately enough, the town of Wallsend. Construction began in 122 AD, and took six years to complete. That alone is impressive. According to the Romans, the purpose of the wall was to protect Roman Britain from the barbarian Britons and Picts to the north.
Britain had always been Rome’s most troublesome province, requiring the largest number of troops to garrison than any of the empire’s other conquests. So why did Rome stop at Hadrian’s Wall? Actually, they didn’t. Rome invaded Britain in 43 AD, and it took about 40 years before the island settled into a relatively consolidated province that would eventually become England and Wales. They made a try for the whole island between about 79 and 87 AD, before apparently considering it too much trouble, and settling on the frontier where they would eventually build Hadrian’s Wall.
But they didn’t give up. In fact, they made at least four more attempts. There are more Roman marching camps in Scotland than in any other place in Europe. In 142, they tried to push the boundaries up to the line between Glasgow and Edinburgh. They even built a new wall, the Antonine Wall, along that stretch. It took twelve years to complete the 39 mile wall, but they abandoned it only eight years later, retreating to Hadrian’s Wall. After more attacks, the Romans made one more try, occupying and repairing the Antonine Wall in 208 AD, but gave up and withdrew again after only a few years.
Kingdoms grow from Tribal Roots
So who were these troublesome barbarians? Britain was home to a number of tribes speaking Celtic languages, divided into two related branches. South of Hadrian’s Wall were the Britons, speaking Brittonic, which would eventually become Welsh and related languages, as described in this post. North of Hadrian’s Wall, it was less clear. Beyond the Antonine Wall, known today as the Scottish Highlands, were the Picts. The Picts appear to have been a branch of Brittonic tribes whose culture and dialect were just distinct enough to differentiate them from the Britons. However, it seems that both Britons and Picts lived in what would become southern Scotland.
As described in the article about Celtic Britain, the original inhabitants of Britain did not speak Celtic. That culture came later, seemingly absorbing the inhabitants more than replacing them. I suspect that, early in the Iron Age, a separation between northern and southern Britons caused a divergence in the dialects, and as populations increased, southern Britons moved north, Picts moved south, and they intermingled in southern Scotland. To what extent, we are not sure, but for some time, they seemed to maintain their identities. St. Ninian was the missionary to the “Southern Picts”, and St. Patrick refers to “apostate Picts”, those Picts who were Christian, but had turned to heresy or paganism.
We know a bit more about the Britons of Scotland than we do the Picts. In part, this is because the tribes that lived adjacent to Roman territory inevitably picked up some Roman culture, often emulating it out of admiration, in order to seem more sophisticated, or to promote trade opportunities. Many of these Britons were also hired as mercenaries by the Roman and the Romans put a lot of effort into Romanizing foreign tribes by indoctrinating their mercenaries.
Britain was populated by many tribes which, even if they shared language and culture, did not consider themselves as “Britons”, and especially not “Celts”, which is a term that came about in the modern era. We know of some of the Pictish tribes, mostly because of the Greek geographer, Ptolemy, but we’re going to focus on the British kingdoms, because they are more relevant to events in The Arthurian Age. Over time, and especially under Roman influence, tribal identification became less important, and as kingdoms developed, tribal affiliations would fade.
More to Come!
So why do we call northern Britain, Scotland? Because of the Irish tribe, the Scoti, who began colonizing western Scotland in the late fifth century. Their culture and language would eventually absorb the Picts and Britons, giving us Scottish Gaelic and the land of Scotland. We’ll talk more about that in the future.
At the start of the The Retreat to Avalon, the year is 469 AD. North of Hadrian’s Wall, there are four Brittonic kingdoms: Alt Clut, Gododdin, Nouant, and Berneich. We have only vague ideas of where the borders of these kingdoms were, and because control of border regions was likely very thin, borders were likely more an issue of influence and argument. There were likely wide spaces between kingdoms that had little population and knew nothing of rulers. So for the purposes of The Arthurian Age, I’ve had to make guesses based on the best information I’ve found.
Ok, so that gives an overview of the region. Next time we’ll look at the specific kingdoms, starting with Gawain’s home, Alt Clut. Thanks for stopping by, and please comment or ask questions!