I must admit to stealing a book title for this post, but I’m going to give credit, because of the many books I’ve read on today’s topic, it is one of the best. The book is An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, A.D. 400–600 by Christopher Snyder, PhD. Academic books are often desert-dry, but the way Snyder described Britain in this era, explaining the written sources and archaeology, was so well written that it was fascinating and easy to follow.
This post is not about his book, but it was one of the primary influences that helped me imagine and narrate the world of Arthur for The Arthurian Age. Granted, Prof. Snyder would likely be unwilling to either confirm or deny much of the speculation that went into my writing, but a historical fiction novel requires speculation to fill in the gaps that an academic treatise can only hint at.
So why did I choose this title for today’s article? Two reasons. First, because of the reference to “Tyrants” is how Gildas, in the only surviving document from the era originating in Britain, described the rulers of Britain. Second, because it just fits. The era was unsettled, with people on the move and strongmen filling the leadership vacuum left by the Roman Empire.
Last time, we looked at one possible way the Britons of what would become England and Wales dealt with the end of Roman rule. We have evidence that the former Roman provinces of Britain tried to maintain a semblance of unity, a council I termed the “Consilium” in The Arthurian Age. But it was clearly not as a single nation. Gildas, and later Nennius, described Britain having a number of rulers.
…the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons…Nennius. History of the Britons (p. 31). Neeland Media LLC. (my emphasis added)
What kingdoms provided this military force? This is one of the most obscure aspects of Britain in the fifth century and later. How did the former Roman provinces break up, and when? Certainly, one of the factors influencing the boundaries of the kingdoms would have been the boundaries of the former Roman provinces. But we aren’t even sure of those. There’s a lot of disagreement among scholars on this subject, so rather than try to peel apart all the various arguments, I’m going to just talk about the approach I took, based on the arguments and evidence that I find most plausible.
One of the things that made the Romans so successful in creating their empire, is that once they militarily beat an opponent into submission, they didn’t impose much of Roman culture, like religion or language, on the conquered people. The adoption of Roman culture would occur over time as a way for the people to be more successful within the Roman Empire. In many cases, the Romans allowed the former ruling elite to maintain power, under the thumb of Roman rule, of course. Often the Romans created their administrative boundaries based on former tribal lands.
The map, above, shows the general regions of the various Celtic British tribes. Roman control and culture was strongest in the southeast. Rome sent military expeditions into the far north of present day Scotland, but never really controlled the lands further north than the neck between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and only for a short time. Rome eventually gave up and settled on a boundary that is roughly equivalent to modern-day England and Wales.
At the end of the second century, Rome split Britain into two provinces: Britannia Superior in the south, and Britannia Inferior in the north (being closer to Rome was considered superior to being further from it). At the end of the third century, Britain was reorganized into four provinces: Britannia Prima, Britannia Secunda, Maxima Caesariensis, and Flavia Caesariensis. Sometime in the fourth century, it appears another reorganization added a fifth province, Valentia. The problem is, no one today is really sure how those provinces were laid out.
In order to have a coherent story, however, I’ve had to choose what I think is most likely. For this, I once again rely on the expertise of archaeologist and Latin expert, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews. One reason I like Keith’s proposed locations for the provinces, is that they work well with many of the later political and military events that shape Britain after the end of the Roman occupation.
When the Britons expelled the last of the Roman magistrates in 410 AD, this is roughly what the governmental boundaries would have looked like. You can almost see where future kingdoms would come into being from these boundaries. It seems that some areas within the former provinces split away into their own kingdoms early on, while other regions tried to maintain a Roman-style system. We just don’t know how quickly things changed.
The Britons were the least “Romanized” of the Empire’s peoples. While most of the powerful “elites” adopted Roman culture and language almost entirely, the general population did not. And it seems that, after the Romans were no longer in charge, the elites quickly reverted to their Celtic culture and stopped training younger generations in Roman management techniques.
For the The Arthurian Age, what follows is the basis for how I think the historical people behind the stories of King Arthur developed into the legends we know of today. So, starting from the end of the Roman occupation to the time of Arthur’s rule, here we go.
I envision the first kingdom to form as Dumnein (mostly modern Cornwall and Devon), splitting from Britannia Prima as powerful elites feud over who should lead the former province. In Britannia Prima’s west, Irish immigrants rule Demetia (southwest Wales), and Cunedda rules what will become Gwynedd, Rhos and Ceredigion (western and northwestern Wales). With the end of Roman rule, they no longer pretend to defer to the Consul of Britannia Prima and break away. Despite these losses, the first High King of the new British Consilium will be that Consul. The other British rulers will be waiting for his first mistake.
As discussed in the last article, British chieftains were assigned roles formerly held by Roman appointees. Coel Hen was likely one of these, and probably became a de facto king of the northern provinces of Valentia and Britannia Secunda. He probably didn’t live long into the new era, and his son inherited his lands. When the son passed, the lands would have been divided between his sons in the Celtic custom. The former province of Britannia Secunda would become Rheged, while Valentia would break off into Berneich and Ebrauc. In time, another split will result in the Kingdom of Elmetia.
For some time, Britannia Prima, Maxima Caesariensis, and Flavia Caesariensis will remain nominally “Roman” in their governance, with Magistrates appointed by councils of British landowners. Warfare between Britons will see the breakup of Britannia Prima into smaller kingdoms, eventually known as Paguis, Buellt, Brycheniog, Guent and Glywsing.
Parts of eastern Flavia Caesariensis are lost to Anglo-Saxon Encroachment, and though the remaining territory remains Roman in governance, it becomes known as Linnuis, for it’s capitol at modern Lincoln. The region of Cantia (modern Kent) in Maxima Caesariensis is lost to the Anglo-Saxons, but the regions of Lundein and Regin hold on as buffers protecting the rest of the province, due in large part to the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus.
These are the kingdoms that Arthur oversees as Rigotamos, or Highest King, in The Arthurian Age. The details I described of how they came into being are going to be a big part of Book 3, Three Wicked Revelations. I hope you found this as fun and interesting as I do, and as always, I love to hear comments and questions!