The End of Roman Britain, Dark Age Politics, Part 8

Recently, the articles in the “Dark Age Politics” series have been about the British kingdoms of The Old North, as they came to be called in Welsh legend and poetry. We’ve also delved a bit into today’s subject, the end of Roman rule in Britain, with what was going on with the Roman Empire, and what kingship looked like in this period. So let’s see how this all set the stage for the future British kingdoms south of Hadrian’s Wall in The Arthurian Age.

Now this information is mostly incidental for explaining The Retreat to Avalon, but it becomes very important in book two, The Strife of Camlann, and especially in book three, The Three Terrible Revelations, which goes back to the beginning of the Arthurian Age and portrays the rise of King Arthur.

In the final years of Roman rule, Britain was a Diocese overseen by a Vicarius (Vicar). Many terms used by the Catholic Church originated as Roman governmental units, and a government official could be from the clergy just as easily as from the landowning elite. In fact, most of the clergy were from the landowning elite. There was no separation of church and state and the aristocracy often moved in and out of civil, military and religious roles.

Note: Some details, like the borders and locations of provinces, are not agreed upon by all researchers. For the sake of simplicity and to provide a coherent backdrop to the storyline of The Arthurian Age, I have chosen the specific details I and other researchers find most plausible. I work hard to keep my stories within the framework of these details. As always, I'd love to chat with anyone about historical specifics.
Speculative map of Britain’s Roman Provinces by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

The Diocese of Britain was divided into five provinces. Two of the provinces, Maxima Caesariensis and Valentia, were each governed by a Consularis. Britannia Prima, Britannia Secunda and Flavia Caesariensis were ruled by a lower-ranking governor called a Praeses. Provinces were further broken down into civitates, administrative regions based loosely on the pre-existing Celtic tribal territories. There were about 16 to 20 within Britain. Cities and towns were typically governed by a council and collected taxes from landholders within their regions.

In the last century of Roman rule, Britain had three major military commands. The Comes Britanniarum (Count of the Britons), was technically the senior command, in charge of the Comitatenses, the mobile field army. Being a mobile field army, the Comes was probably not headquartered in a particular place, but went where needed and wintered over near troubled areas.

Roman-British military, by Angus McBride, from the excellent Osprey Publishing series

The Comes Littoris Saxonici (Count of the Saxon Shore), was responsible for the string of forts along Britain’s southern and southeastern coast, from Portchester Castle, Hampshire to Brancaster, Norfolk. He commanded Limitanei, or frontier troops, which held a lower status than the Comitatenses. He may also have been in charge of any Roman naval forces.

Saxon Shore Fort of Portus Adurni (Portchester)

The Dux Britanniarum (Duke of the Britons), was headquartered at York (Ebrauc) and held command of the northern forces, also Limitanei, primarily along Hadrian’s Wall. Lower in rank than the Comes Britanniarum, this commander had control of far more military might and likely much more influence within Britain. These commands will play a role in Post-Roman Britain.

Hadrian’s Wall

The last half of the fourth century was a turbulent, destructive time in the Roman Empire. Particularly for Britain, suffering under frequent attacks from Irish, Pictish and Germanic raiders looking for slaves and plunder.

In 383, Magnus Maximus, perhaps the last effective Roman leader in Britain, usurped the throne of the Western Roman Empire from Gratian by agreement with the Eastern Roman Emperor, Theodosius I. Magnus went to Gaul to fight Gratian, taking a large portion of the Roman army in Britain with him. After some success, he was eventually killed by Theodosius (this era of Roman history is by far the most fascinating), but before he departed Britain, it appears he did all he could to improve the ability of the Britons to defend themselves, including appointing local British chieftains to military and civil leadership.

The next imperial usurper elevated in Britain, Constantine III, takes most of the remaining troops to Gaul in 407. Under renewed pressure from barbarian raiders, the leaders of the British civitates ask Rome for help in 410. The empire, staggering under it’s own barbarian attacks and internal strife, tells the Britons to “look to their own defenses”. In response, the Britons expelled the last of the Roman Imperial administrators (mostly tax collectors) and ended Roman rule in Britain.

Now things are going to get really interesting! How do the Britons adapt? Who governs Britain? How do they deal with the constant attacks? Well, folks, we will delve into that in the next installment. I hope you enjoyed this and look forward to the next one.

2 thoughts on “The End of Roman Britain, Dark Age Politics, Part 8”

  1. Very interesting, the era seems similar to Renaissance Italy in that you have assorted war lords of various titles, treaties, alliances, conflicts. The stinger for both was introducing and employing mercenaries.


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