As you may have seen in the past couple of articles, there’s a lot going on which has knocked me off track from posting articles. I’m currently editing The Strife of Camlann, Book II of The Arthurian Age series (I used to call it a trilogy, but there may be more…). It’s time to hop back into talking about the background of The Arthurian Age through what we know of the history of Dark Ages Britain.
So far, the “Dark Age Politics” articles (see the list here) have been about the British kingdoms of The Old North, as they came to be called in Welsh legend and poetry. Today we’re getting into interesting new territory: the lands south of Hadrian’s Wall that comprised Roman Britain, and became something else during The Arthurian Age.
Consider the era, the beginning of the “Dark Ages”. The term, itself, is controversial, as I describe in this post. However, due to the lack of written records from the era, it applies well to Britain between the end of the Roman occupation at the beginning of the fifth century, and the end of the sixth century.
It’s not that records weren’t kept; in Gaul (France), Roman culture was much more entrenched. Even today, most of Europe uses a legal system based on the Roman model, as opposed to the Common Law system of Britain. Rather, two things seemed to have happened. First, the Britons, who were the least Romanized of Roman territories, quickly reverted back to their own culture. This is likely because only the societal elites had adopted Roman culture to any great extent, and it appears that after Roman administration was no longer in effect, later generations of the aristocracy stopped passing on Roman systems and culture. Second, many documents that remained, mostly with the clergy, were destroyed by the Viking invasions beginning at the end of the eighth century.
The result is that when we look at the Arthurian Age (my term for the period of roughly 410 to 550 AD), we have only two documents from the British Isles. I go into more of what we know in this post. So anything we put together about the political situation in Briton in the late fifth century is almost entirely conjecture. But it’s conjecture developed from the clues left behind.
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 Wicked Revelations, which goes back to the beginning of the Arthurian Age and portrays the rise of King Arthur. So let’s look at Britain’s history from the beginning of The Arthurian Age.
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. There was no separation of church and state and the aristocracy often moved in and out of civil, military and religious roles.
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. Cities and towns were typically governed by a council. Outside the cities, rich landowners ran things, often from self-sufficient manorial complexes called villae.
The last half of the fourth century was a turbulent, destructive time in Britain, with 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.
One such appointment may have been Coel Hen, a high-level British chieftain, who became the last Roman Dux Britanniarum, the Roman military commander of the northern forces, primarily along Hadrian’s Wall. Headquartered at Ebrauc (York), Coel Hen would be responsible for the entire region of what becomes northern England.
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, tells the Britons to “look to their own defenses”. In response, the Britons expelled the last of the Roman Imperial administrators and ended Roman rule in Britain.
What happens next is uncertain. Few records survive from this time period, but it appears that the Britons south of Hadrian’s Wall attempted to maintain a semblance of Roman government. There are references to leaders and their councils in surviving records. Gildas, writing in the late fifth century, refers to a Proud Tyrant (tyrant being his term for any ruler not appointed by the Church or Roman law; he considered the independence of the Britons to be a rebellion against the just and rightful rule of Rome) and a council making decisions about protecting Britain. Nennius, in the 9th century, said:
…the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander…Nennius. History of the Britons (p. 31). Neeland Media LLC. (my emphasis added)
So we can determine that Britain was certainly not a unified nation, but that various British rulers did come together in common cause. We talk about Britain’s Warlords and Kings in this post. More than that, it appears that they formed a council with a leader, perhaps a high-king like their Celtic neighbors, the Irish, or using a Roman title. Roman titles persisted beyond Rome’s rule, as warlords sought to legitimize themselves with Roman trappings.
A similar thing may have happened with Roman institutions. The Romans had a council that advised the emperor known as the Consilium Principis. The Britons reportedly had a council headed by a “Supreme Tyrant”. We don’t know what they called this council, so for the purposes of The Arthurian Age, I imagined that they call it the Consilium. It’s members are drawn from the rulers of the major kingdoms and remaining Roman-style magistrates. This council elects a leader to oversee the council, mediate disputes, and manage defense. A sort of Chairman of the Board with an army.
It’s interesting that the first purported leader of Britain’s council was a man called Vortigern. Vortigern is a Latinized form of the Brittonic term “Overlord”. Some say it was just his name, though you have to admire the luck that gave him a job to match his name. Not, however, the luck that dogged his career.
A similar situation arises around the name Riothamus, a Latinized form of the Brittonic term, Rigotamos, for “Highest King”. Riothamus is the “King of the Britons” who allies with the Western Roman Emperor, Anthemius, to fight the Visigoths. As the research of Geoffrey Ashe points out, there are some fascinating reasons to believe that Riothamus was a title borne by Arthur, and that later legends of Arthur arise from the events of the fifth century.
It’s also interesting that in early legends about King Arthur, his entourage is made up of various kings and high ranking nobles. It’s not a great leap from the idea of a council of rulers with a supreme leader to a noble king with his knights and a Round Table.
Much of this will be portrayed in book three of The Arthurian Age. We get a glimpse of the Consilium in The Retreat to Avalon, and a much closer look in The Strife of Camlann. Next time we’ll talk about the break-up of Roman Britain into independent kingdoms. Thanks for coming by, and as always, I love to get comments and questions!