British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Chapter 1.6: British kings as tyrants

Fabio P. Barbieri

The five tyrants are not exemplars of a whole class of people. They are individually responsible for the country's evils, "these five mad and debauched horses from the retinue of Pharaoh". But other kinglets are not clean either: Gildas' "little work" [sic!] is sure that only a few are on the right path (50.1). It is rather the case that these five are the most fearsome examples of a general tendency; most of the rest would probably commit as many crimes and as many sins, if they could and if they dared. His condemnation is on the whole royal class: reges habet Britannia, sed tyrannos - Britain does have kings, but they are tyrants.

The comparison of the five worst offenders to Pharaoh's horses is fascinating. It is one of the very few places where, instead of inserting long, unaltered Biblical quotes (though we will see that even his use of unaltered Biblical quotes shows brilliant poetic imagination), Gildas allows himself a little embroidery. The only thing that the Bible tells us about the horses of Pharaoh is that, along with the infantry, they were drowned in the Red Sea. Gildas expands on that by suggesting a picture of madly excited war-beasts without reason, blindly abusing their physical strength to drag themselves and the men who follow them to ruin. As Gildas knew, Pharaoh's were not cavalry horses, but chariot animals, not ridden but driven. The image of chariot horses can show them leading, even dragging the chariot along, far more than that of cavalry horses, who are ridden, controlled and commanded. As compared with cavalry actions, the force and wilfulness of the animal is more of a consideration; more depends on its obedience, and more can go wrong if it runs amuck. The five tyrants have kicked over the traces, got the bit between their teeth, and wildly careered about the battlefield, trampling their own side and breaking to pieces the chariot they were supposed to pull - that is the national interests, the law and order, and the national defence, entrusted to them.

From the literary point of view, the propriety of the image is superb. While far too many Biblical retouchings tend to abuse the content of the original in the service of the writer's own little hobby-horses, this one works with the grain of it, adding something to our picture of Exodus and detracting nothing. It is a very good metaphor for the political situation that Gildas envisages, describing the forces of a great empire drawn to destruction by the animal instincts of those that ought to be serving it. It also gives a precise picture of the way he saw the five kings: as fighting animals in the service of a great monarch - Pharaoh - which, because of improvidence on his part and uncontrolled fury on theirs, are bringing the fighting forces of the kingdom to perdition instead of letting proper use be made of them.

If the five kings are greatly to blame, however, the central power also seems gravely at fault; the horses of Pharaoh were not more guilty than the stubborn and stupid monarch himself. There can be no doubt that Britain had one nominal high king or emperor; Gildas simply assumes that there is such a country as Britain, that it is a unit, and that the Romans conquered it as a unit; the existence of what he regarded as Pictish, Irish and Saxon colonies does nothing to detract from that. The island is a single sphere of sovereignty; the existence of a sovereign is a necessary corollary of that. And it is no great leap of the imagination to assume that Gildas' great hero Ambrosius Aurelianus, leader of the fightback against the Saxons, was one such king, and that Gildas' criticism of his suboles, his descent, are to do with their inability to fulfil their role. This criticism is restrained; Gildas says no more than that he, or they (suboles could mean either one descendant or many) is/are greatly fallen off from the goodness of their ancestor, magnopere auita bonitate degenerauit. But if their horses - the subordinate kings of Britain - are running mad, they cannot escape responsibility.

The course of his argument proves that this degeneracy was manifested by their incapacity to keep up the war against the Saxons for which Ambrosius had become renowned and which Gildas demanded; but its most visible result is anarchy among the tributary states. The kings' role and power may be read in filigree in his quite unhistorical account of the Roman empire: a very powerful central state surrounded by a number of smaller tributary kingdoms, each responsible for its own defence and with its own armed force (nothing less like actual Roman practice could be imagined). The central power is represented by rectores, who enforce the law and, though Gildas says nothing about that, must be responsible for collecting tribute. The five tyrants against whom he inveighs are no doubt sovereigns of such tributary kingdoms; there must be dozens more, since Aurelius Caninus and Maglocunus are said to have fought several wars against their neighbours.

How have these provincial powers grown so uncontrolled, so stubborn, so reckless? Habet Britannia rectores, says Gildas: Britain is not without[1] her rectores, those representatives of the central power to whom it fell to implement its law. Nor does he suggest that any of the rectores of his day, whose impotence he bemoans, are in danger of their lives like the first rectores of the Romans, murdered by the ancestors of the present shower; rather, they have been so marginalized by a mountain of business - tanto pondere sunt pressi, idcirco spatium respirandi non habent - that it seems that they are unable to take cognizance of, and resolve, the great feuds between tributary kings, and, in consequence, their crimes. Gildas' expression is not wholly clear as to what exactly is the pondere, the weight, that oppresses them, but it is clear that he regards them more as victims of circumstances, doing their best in impossible conditions, than as themselves guilty of any omission; though hardly slow to apportion blame, he never blames them. It is those above and below them - the lethargic central power, the revolting (in every sense) provincial lords - who are the true guilty men.

The heavy burdens apparently laid on them suggest that rectores were not merely diplomatic representatives to the local governments, but functionaries accessible to the population at large, perhaps with some sort of judicial function. The function of iudex is clearly ascribed by Gildas to the kings themselves, as he reproaches them with passing unjust judgements; but the legend of chs.5-7 implies that the original rectores of the Roman kings imposed Roman law on Britain, and it follows that the law of the rectores is superior to that of the local kings[2]. Gildas (1.14) would like to see a good few more rectores; the posts that exist are filled, but would that we had more! The implication seems to be that the central power cannot afford more representatives (Treasury restrictions - that curse of every imaginative and ambitious scheme of government in this country); it may also have been that to send more rectores would have been unwelcome to the provincial kings, and made trouble from which the "degenerate" suboles of Ambrosius shrank.

This political set-up is different both in kind and vocabulary from that of the late Roman Empire. The word rectores, used in this sense, is new; but the sense is clear, at least to the extent that it defines a precise category of functionaries who perform certain tasks, even though the tasks in question may not always be easy to unravel[3]. It follows that the effort of many scholars to explain the political vocabulary of the age of Ambrosius, as found in Gildas and in various inscriptions, with that of the later Roman Empire, is misplaced. Gildasian Britain established a largely new political order with a new vocabulary. When an inscription calls Voteporix (the Vorteporius of Gildas) Protictor (with an i!4]), this is not a claim to descend from some forgotten member of some ancient Roman Emperor's bodyguard (protectores); it means that Ambrosius, or a successor, has appointed him, or an ancestor, Protector. And it is easy to see what he is to protect: as lord of Dyved (Gildas' Demetae), he stands over the strategic mouth of the Severn, the main route of British trade to the Mediterranean, protecting it from the frequent threat of Irish pirates and settlers. Some of his subjects are Irish, and he may be of Irish descent himself (the Voteporix Protictor inscription is written in both Latin and Irish, using Latin and Ogham alphabets); but then sometimes it takes a thief to catch a thief[5].

When Gildas says that Britain is not without rectores and speculatores, he is using Gildasian-age vocabulary. He is mentioning two precise categories at whose hands the country ought to expect relief (but he makes it clear that it does not) from the five kings’ crimes and the blasphemies. The rectores are the king's representatives; the speculatores are the bishops, as confirmed by a frequent "precious" usage of St. Columbanus, who (as we have seen) was familiar with Gildas and admired him[6]. Speculator means in fact the same in Latin as Episkopos does in Greek: overseer, inspector. Elsewhere Gildas uses the more familiar Greek term, but here he wants the sonorous roll of two successive Latin words to make clear, even to those with no Greek, what the function of the two groups is. Rectores have to "uphold", regere: the state, the peace, and justice. Speculatores have to "oversee", speculare, keeping themselves informed of conditions everywhere in their own area and fearlessly denouncing sin and crime, making themselves like mirrors, speculi, to show the world and the people their true face.

Although the rectores are the agents of the British central power and the Bishops of the international Church, they are or should be on the same side, curbing the powerful and protecting the law. It is possible, even probable, that the conceptualization of the Bishop in the Catholic Church - royal in his own diocese, with a throne and a staff of office, and yet the member and functionary of a supranational society, teaching its doctrines and enforcing its discipline - had some influence on the formation of the idea of rector.

If so, however, then this application of ecclesiastical concepts in the secular field seems to have been a failure. The tyrant kings, says Gildas, disregard the rectores and purchase the bishops. The situation is so bad that both groups are helpless against the tide of business; half the Church is in the pay of the tyrant kings anyway, and the rest needs the resources of heroes and saints to face the situation. Little is more telling - and frightening - than Gildas' review of legendary Old Testament examples of supernatural power and New Testament martyr heroism (69-75), in the convinction that if all the priests of the Church were as brave as Samson, as wise as the prophets, as fearless as the martyrs, all would be well. For it makes clear that the men of the Church in his time were no worse than men anywhere. Gildas has gathered all the most eminent examples of sanctity in two thousand years of history and legend, and he expects the normal men of his day to match this Olympus! When Charlemagne wished aloud for twelve men such as Augustine and Jerome, Alcuin snapped back "the Almighty Himself has only two such, and you wish for twelve?"

The truth is that the infernal mechanism of political degeneration and ecclesiastical corruption was so intractable that Gildas could see no way out of it except for unreal visions of universal heroism. He was much too intelligent not to see that the degeneration of Britain proceeded from no external stimulus. The Saxon presence was undesirable, but the mere fact that even the worst sinners in Gildas' time boasted that they did not offer sacrifices to idols as the Pagans did (38.5) showed that their paganism did not attract the British: Christianity was a badge of nationhood, the token of British superiority to Saxon and Pict barbarians, and therefore every good Briton was at least nominally Christian[7]. And the country had been at peace for decades - at least, from external enemies. Shortly after the siege of Mons Badonicus, the Saxons had been pacified (as it seemed) for good, and Gildas makes no mention of Pictish or Irish raiders. He could not avoid concluding that the degeneration of the British was the result of their own inner nature. With no external seducer to lead them astray, they had nevertheless contrived to create a situation that spelled disaster, with the smaller kings at constant war with each other, abusing their power to a scandalous extent, the central power helpless and inactive, and heathen Picts and Saxons in full control of their parts of the country. And then there was the dull rumble from Byzantium...

Although Gildas is clearly a believer in class and degree, his attitude has nothing to do with privilege. He detests the ambition that uses the office of king of a minor part of the country to assault the rights and territories of others and the independence of the Church, and is coldly dismissive towards the sort of clergyman who is so careful of his church's prerogatives and his own rank that he regards an offence against either as an assault on Our Lord (66.3). For outward signs of rank and power he has less than no respect, castigating large-scale church building while sin runs rampant in the community, calling on the testimony of Isaiah 66 (79.3) and Jeremiah 7.11-15 (80.4) that to raise temples and offer sacrifices is worse than useless while apostasy and sin rampage across the land.

These two quotations from the prophets are both extraordinarily well-chosen: the Jeremiah passage in particular is designed to haunt Gildas' contemporaries. It is an assault on Jewish complacency and nationalism, typical of its author: Jeremiah tells those who put their trust in the temple of Jerusalem to look at what the Lord had done to His far more ancient temple in Shiloh on account of the sins of the Israelites there. Think of it with the mind of a sixth-century Briton, who has just heard Gildas' thunderous voice reminding him that great churches and martyrs' shrines still lay in ruins in the Saxon territories. As the ruins of Shiloh stood as a living reproach and threat to the self-righteous of Jerusalem, so the ruined places of worship in East Anglia looked grimly across the border at the overconfident Britons in their expensive new buildings. This is more than a quotation to reinforce an argument: it is a poetic idea, using another man's words rather than one's own, but memorable, frightening, condemning the failings of the present that much more vividly because it can show that it has all happened before.

Gildas does not believe that to raise vainglorious temples in the middle of a moral desert will do anything to improve his country's situation. His view of social rank is not to do with prestige or outward admiration. When he claims that no Briton is able or willing to suum seruare ordinem, preserve his own order, what he means is not "to preserve the rights of one's rank", but "to carry out the duties of office without fear or favour and hand them over intact to your successor". Gildas' Latin is always notable for its expressiveness, pregnancy and precision, and his use of this common Latin expression deserves notice. Suum seruare ordinem has a double meaning: in military language it means "to keep in order, not to break ranks", but in terms of social ideas "to stick to one's caste". There can be no doubt that the social meaning was uppermost in people's minds in such a caste-ridden society as Gildasian Britain; and that the likes of Aurelius Caninus probably had their mouths full of meum seruare ordinem in the sense of "defending my and my family's rights (whatever the cost to society at large)". Gildas, I think, whips the carpet from under their feet by using the expression in its military meaning and showing that, far from "keeping their own rank", these men are not only breaking rank but disarticulating the whole military order of the nation in pursuit of their own selfish schemes.

As the parallel with the horses of Pharaoh shows, the military duties of the kings are never far from Gildas' mind. He occasionally calls them duces or battle leaders; and the story of Ambrosius Aurelianus - which may be called a foundation myth in so far as it is used to explain and justify the socio-political organization of Gildasian Britain - is a story of war and military men, in which the nation takes its present shape, under its present leaders, in the course of a long war. The nation is first and foremost a military organization, and the duties of its kings are first and foremost military. Civil war is the most hideous betrayal of these duties; and there is evidence that Gildas had illustrious precedents with which to castigate the military men of his time.

Among the few genuine Roman documents known to the great writer there must certainly have been the exemplaria instituendorum armorum, army training manuals, which he mentions in 18.2. We have seen that his political vocabulary is new and local; and when we come to examine his account of the Letter to Agitius, we shall find that Gildas, a) has no idea what a Consul is, b) cannot read a Consular table, and c) is ignorant of any title for a powerful Roman, of the Classical age, being reduced to helplessly calling Aetius uir Romanae potestatis, “a hero of Roman power”, in spite of the fact that the title Consul stared at him from the very text he was quoting. In other words, he knew nothing whatever of the political set-up of the respublica. On the other hand, the Latin of his military descriptions is imperial and classical. Soldiers, milites, part of an exercitus backed by a militaris classis, carry scuta, hastae and enses and gather for battle, each man under the duty suum seruandi ordinem, in a quadratum agmen with a dexter cornu and, we suppose, a sinister; when they are not busy dimicare in bella, they are billeted on the civilian population as hospites and fed by annona paid out in epimenia. There is not a single Celtic or post-Imperial word here, not a single technical term that pertains to any other organization than the imperial army; though Britain's Celtic warriors had their own technical vocabulary for the business of killing enemies.

Even if Gildas did not mention written technical texts as he does, such precision of language must prove that they existed (just as his usage of technical agricultural vocabulary when escoriating Constantine of Dumnonia must prove that he had some Classical agricultural handbook such as Columella's at hand). He speaks of the Romans providing them to the Britons on their very last expedition; the truth is surely that they were transmitted by local army units left in Britain after Stilicho and Constantine III had taken the cream away. A standing army such as Rome's has depots and training camps, where army manuals are usually to be found in plenty; none of these things had any reason to be taken to Gaul, and indeed they must have been used with great urgency during the dramatic events of 410-411, when Britain, left to defend itself with no further help from the continent, must have had to raise and train new armies. It is not clear whether these training manuals were being used by British warriors in Gildas' time, but his repeated use of technical vocabulary suggests that they were familiar with them; and the emotional impact he expects the expression suum seruare ordinem, in its military meaning, to have, strongly suggests that the kings of Britain had been trained, in Latin, to fight in ordered ranks.

However they may have come down to him, Gildas is here in receipt of the Roman military values: multum... rationis ac sollertiae; praeponere electos, audire praepositos, nosse ordines, intelligere occasiones, differre impetus, disponere diem, uallare noctem, fortunam inter dubia, uirtutem inter certa numerare... plus reponere in duce quam in exercitu... alios ad proelium ire uideas, Chattos ad bellum; rari excursus et fortuita pugna... uelocitas iuxta formidine, cunctatio propior constantiae est. That is how Tacitus defined the Roman ideal, misapplying[8] it to the Germanic Chatti: "a great deal of reason and hard work; put the selected [officers] in charge, pay them attention, be familiar with the orders so you can recognize them, understand the situation, put off attacks [if you have to], organize by day, wall up camp by night, hold success among the doubtful things and courage among the certain... place more importance on the commander than on the enlisted men... You will see others go to battle, but the Chatti go to war; they rarely raid or indulge in random fights... speed has a lot in common with fear, it is deliberation that is closer to consistency."

There can be no doubt that this, not battle fury, is what Gildas means by courage. He speaks of the fortia monita, the valiant advice, given by the Romans to the Britons at the same time as they handed over the training manuals and the stone Wall to protect them; and one suspects that some such speech was in fact found in the training manuals themselves, written in the typical Classical rhetoric and attributed, perhaps, to one of the great commanders of the past. It is surely following some such text that Gildas enlarges the idea of keeping rank into a social principle, especially relevant to the kings of Britain because of their military role - they are soldiers, they have a duty to keep rank. It is for this reason that he calls his contemporaries desidiosi: not because they shrink from fighting - could Maglocunus or Aurelius Caninus be seen as avoiding battle? - but because they shrink from the discipline and order implicit in regular Army life. According to him, it has always, from the beginning, been alien to the British. Suum seruare ordinem is not in their nature: in his "Roman" legend of 5-7, what drives the islanders to rebellion and murder is not tribute, which is never mentioned[9], but the sheer irksomeness of having to obey laws and orders. In keeping with his view of his people as enduringly unwilling and rebellious, they swallow Roman law without outward protest, but then murder its representatives without thought for the result, out of mere natural perversity.

These two things, lack of foresight for the results of one's actions and natural rebelliousness, go together in Gildas' system: the more recklessly you plunge into parricide, adultery and simony, the less willing and able you are to foresee the inevitable results of your action. Among the reproaches he hurls, not the least is that of stupidity: Vorteporius is stupidly stiffening on a murder-raped throne; Maglocunus has wasted and betrayed the teaching of the best master in Britain; Aurelius Caninus cannot even see the lesson of the near-eradication of his family. An intellectual by instinct and training, the great writer, with his broad understanding of British politics and ten and more years of reflection on contemporary events, was horribly frustrated by this widespread kind of wilful blindness. Even army manuals were certainly part of that heritage of wisdom and good advice of which the Bible was the highest but hardly the only instance, and which he saw his generation betraying time and again. That he believed in the supremacy of reason and argument is sufficiently proved by his heroic attempt to force the meaning of their actions upon the criminal rulers of Britain by means of his great book, enlisting every resource of Latin rhetoric and argument available to him in the service of sense and civic order, mobilizing, like Winston Churchill, the Latin language, and sending it into war. He may have felt that the nature of the British was such as to make "things grow worse for ever"[10], but his heart and soul refused to accept that public argument and correction would not touch his fellow-countrymen.

It is a surprising fact that all surviving items of Gildas' work except for The ruin shows a tolerant and sensitive man. His Penitential[11], a brief collection of rulings on matters of monastic discipline, is a model of wise, moderate, realistic and yet firm prescription against sin in religious communities, clearly based on wide experience and thought. He has a marked distaste for religious extremism: he has seen men living the most self-sacrificing of lives and has felt the worst of sins in them - Spiritual Pride; hatred of the common run of mankind, a wilful desire to form a perverse sort of aristocracy of the unwashed, callused voluntary poor. He dislikes violent or extreme penance. He treats homosexual and heterosexual fornication on the same level - this at the time when Justinian was staining Roman law with the death-penalty for sodomy - and prescribes no more than three years for this most serious breach of monastic vows. Indeed, he prescribes no penance longer than twelve years, and the two longest - seven years of penance for fornicating deacons, and twelve for presbyters - are given not on his own authority, but on that of "the ancient fathers"; speaking in his own name, he never asks for more than three years. He prescribes remedies for rows within the community, advising conciliation by the abbot and keeping expulsion only as a last resort, if conciliation and penance have already failed twice; and makes it a rule that any monk who knows of a sin by a brother must approach that brother first and ask him to go to the abbot, and only take action himself if the brother refuses - a wise precaution against sneaking and narking.

Most astonishingly, he did not want excommunication to be the equivalent of civil death, and would have been shocked to know what a terrible punishment it was to become[12]. A lost letter argued that it is wrong to treat excommunicates as pariahs, cut off from the people; and by this he means not only baptized sinners, but even heretics and Pagans. And, of all things, he bases most of his argument on the Old Testament. All the great patriarchs[13], Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Aaron and Moses, lead up to Our Lord Himself, Who, as Gildas pointed out, did not scruple to eat with extortionate tax-gatherers, notorious sinners, and whores. In short, in personal relationships Gildas was disposed to take people as he found them, and anything but eager for wholesale reformation as a principle.

And yet this gentlemanly, realistic moderate, already in his forties and no teenage hothead, devoted a great deal of effort to a work that described his own people and class as nothing less than the scum of the Earth, cowardly, perfidious and blood-thirsty, and their rulers and church leaders as one common mass of sin, lust, treachery, parricide, and fratricide; so that when we think of Gildas we never remember the judicious, acute and sympathetic adviser of monastic communities, but only Jeremiah's little British brother.

The reason is not hard to find. As he watched his countrymen slide from crime to crime, from violence to further violence, the country dissolve in a chaos of civil war and many-sided treachery, and the Roman Empire take, in Justinian's merciless hands, the form of a horde of armed and armoured locusts on warships, the angry despair roused in him by many years of watching things grow worse made the racial view of natural abilities, of inborn racial characteristics, of superiority and inferiority, turn over in his mind like Satan disguised as an angel of light, removing his mask and showing a bloody grinning skull. He was bound to regard the Romans as the supreme race; and the Romans had become like a pagan host from the Old Testament, an Assyrian swarm devouring nations and grinding peoples to dust. He loved the Latin language and valued Roman blood: and the Britons, many of whom claimed Roman descent (most Welsh genealogies begin with Roman names), were degenerating by the day, sinking into perpetual civil war while gibberish-spouting barbarians, unchallenged and unconverted, held some of Britain's most fertile provinces. He was a Briton of the Britons, a member of the educated classes whose description of the land of Britain is as lyrical as the Song of Songs; and he had spent more than ten years watching the political situation deteriorate, the kings seized by a whirl of wars and vendette while their brittle but absolute power allowed them to indulge their private lusts to a degree that is startling even today (what modern public figure could survive even the rumour that he had bedded his own daughter?).

To us, a good few of these would be false problems, or, at best, questions of sentiment rather than serious political theory; but to Gildas, or rather the culture he belonged to, the fact that Roman blood qualified men, and British blood tended to disqualify them, for the higher ranks of society, was a biological truth. Everybody in Britain clearly understood society in terms of blood and descent; but what did the villainous behaviour of the leaders of Britain say about the value of their blood?

But while Gildas' book cannot be understood without this racial doctrine, it does not distort his picture as that of Procopius, for instance, is distorted by his inability to understand any event except by relating it to the Imperial throne. Gildas watches events develop by their own powers, forming a coherent pattern of which the imperial throne of Rome and the British throne of Ambrosius, much though he venerates them both, are only one factor. And yet, unlike Gregory of Tours, events do not dominate him; he does not break the pace or pattern of his writing to pursue some wisp of anecdote that may be interesting to him but has little or nothing to do with the main theme. It is a measure of his intellectual superiority to such contemporaries as Procopius or Gregory that he is able to convincingly argue almost all the ills of contemporary Britain back to a single cause, namely the corrupt and corrupting character of her leaders. Their unwillingness to keep to their own ordo drives them to quarrel and threaten each other, and finally to civil war. To strengthen their position (and, more fundamentally, because they are naturally unable to accept or recognize the limits to their power), they corrupt the church by selling its offices, not because they need the revenue - to Gildas, the king or tyrant is rich by definition - but because that will place those offices under their control: he who sells something, owns what he sells. They pour wealth into the church, not for the sake of their souls - given the spectacular sin in which they deal daily without any sign of repentance, Gildas would find the suggestion ludicrous - but to further bind the institution to their interests; Gildas comments with disgust that the churchmen who take this tainted treasure don't even have the sense to give it to the poor.

(He is not however in love with his theory to the extent of trying to fit everything in it; he does not even try to charge the heresy and over-clever paltering with Church doctrine of contemporary ecclesiastics directly to tyranny like Vorteporius or Constantine's, ascribing it rather to a basic dislike of stability and love of wandering for its own sake.)

To all those who have objected to Gildas' picture as sensationalized or moralistic, it is perhaps worth pointing out that it differs in no fundamental respect from that drawn by Gregory of Tours at roughly the same time (he wrote his Gesta Francorum or History of the Franks over a number of years, concluding in 594). Gregory says nothing about the British mainland, but his account of the activities of British lords in Brittany is one long tale of treason, fratricide, solemn oaths broken again and again, ecclesiastical titles seized for convenience and discarded as soon as their utility had ceased, and everlasting, bloody, useless feuds in the pursuit of shreds of small local power. It is pointless to point out that Gregory's Franks are often no better; even if that is the case, the issue is whether or not Gildas was fair and accurate in reporting British ways – and, to judge from Gregory, he obviously was.  Misplaced piety towards British ancestors should not stand between us and the facts; and while Gregory obviously shares the idea, which Gildas tells us is widespread among Britain's neighbours, that the British "are cowardly in war and faithless in peace", he never states or even hints at it, but merely reports events some of which happened in his diocese, and all of which within his lifetime. Chanao, Count among the Britons, kills three of his own brothers, and throws a fourth, Macliaw, into jail "while he was trying to summon up the nerve to kill him too"; Macliaw saves his life with a solemn oath sworn before the Bishop of Nantes - which he promptly breaks (both parties in this are strongly reminiscent of Gildas' account of Constantine of Dumnonia); fleeing Chanao, he has himself tonsured and declared Bishop of Vannes - God only knows by what means (does this not remind us of the manipulation of church offices with which Gildas charges contemporary lords?) - only to renounce tonsure, vows and episcopate as soon as his brother is dead and he can take over his kingdom[14]. Macliaw and Boudic swear to rear each other's children if either of them dies before his time; Boudic is killed and Macliaw breaks his word, seizing the inheritance of Boudic's son Theodoric, who then gathers a war-band and slays him[15]. Waroch son of Macliaw, who had kept his father's original lands, swears an oath to King Chilperic; it does not take him long to break it, with his own bishop conniving[16]. Indeed, breaking his word becomes a habit[17]. On more than one occasion, they even send hostages in pledge of treaties they did not mean to keep, condemning these hostages to certain death. They use savage and plundering methods of warfare[18], enslave Christians, and when they promise, even to a Bishop, to make up for it, they do not keep their word (this business of not returning plunder and prisoners even to a Bishop reminds us of Coroticus' men laughing in the face of St.Patrick's envoy when he made a similar request)[19]

For more than a decade, says Gildas, I have kept silent as these evils gnawed at my country, out of a sense of my own worthlessness (1.3). This implies that the steep decline of the British body politic was a datable process that began within his lifetime. He was forty-four when he completed his masterpiece; he had started thinking about it at, perhaps, thirty-two or thirty-three; which means that already by that time the degeneration of the political system had become manifest. That is, it was the work of Gildas' own generation, clearly visible in about 550AD (the first British misdeed described by Gregory of Tours, Chanao’s murder of his brothers, dates to 544); and when Gildas singled out the five worst contemporaries as "guilty men" he had good reason to do so. I would guess that the house of Aurelius Caninus was the first to disrupt the British system; after all, they had been at it for two generations - by 561, Caninus' father and brothers had already perished in the pursuit of the same superuacuam phantasiam to which the young scoundrel was now devoting himself. After them, first Cuneglasus, an older man, and then the still young and incredibly vigorous Maglocunus, must have added to the chaos with their individual adventures. Maglocunus must have turned out to be the most devastating and disruptive of the lot, his attempts upon neighbouring princes and kinsmen soon turning into an outright Highland southwards invasion.

And all this had been happening within Gildas' lifetime, perhaps within his adult life. He had spent ten and more years watching things grow worse and worse, buoyed up from time to time by hopes that never came to fruition. There was no escaping it: left to themselves, the British would turn to tyrants. As naturally as a bud grows into a flower, a British king would grow into a tyrant, and a Briton under him into his lickspittle. Even those who did not actually take part in this appalling situation were, according to Gildas, guilty of tolerating it, and consent is a sin in itself - "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing".

Unfortunately Gildas has no positive project for the reform of the British polity. His recipe for the catastrophic conditions of his day is the Crusade. War unifies the people. In Britain's long history of chaos, the only period of national cohesion and social and military order was when Ambrosius had led the nation against the Saxons. A return to it might restore the island's lost unity, and certainly the toleration of Saxon (and Pictish and Scottish) enclaves in Britain is a symptom of the lack of that unity. The fear and need of the Saxon war had taught those who lived through it the need for internal peace and repressed the evil passions of the British soul; but when the pressures of war were forgotten, they grew and blossomed again.

In The Ruin of Britain, the Saxons are whipping boys. He shows no interest in them as people: they are merely the descendants of those who, in the time of our grandfathers, plundered and raided our island and killed our ancestors. It is worth noting that they have lived in comparative peace, if not in amity, with the British for forty-odd years; and yet, except for the dubious notes about three ships and an omen, which might well come from British and not from English legend, he says nothing whatsoever about them as people, as political entities, or as a culture[20].

Gildas may have come to regret his use of Pagans as targets. As I pointed out, in his fragment ruling on the propriety of contact with excommunicates and Pagans, he all but contradicts The ruin; Pagans are, not Deo hominibusque inuisi, but people you meet, talk with, and may eat with, as Our Lord dined with sinners and whores. To avoid their contact altogether is positively wrong. This cannot be reconciled with the attitude of The ruin, and indicates that between the writing of the tract and the letter, Gildas had started to think of Pagans as human beings. The letter is almost certainly later; at the time of The ruin, he was a deacon[21] and had not written for over ten years; but the letter is written in the role of an authoritative and high-ranking adviser to monastic communities, used to being frequently asked for opinions and rulings.

But in this book, his real subject is the corruption of the British church and body politic; he says so at the start, and, like the good writer he is, he never swerves from it. Certainly, the attempt to foster nationalistic and racist hatred against the Saxons is, from our point of view, immoral and possibly even counterproductive (it may have fostered the separation between the two nations that led to the second Saxon cycle of wars, the fall of Britain and the rise of England); but it results from Gildas' desire to put an end to his country's slow slide into anarchy, and restore a united British nation under God[22]. He feels that if only men did their duty and nothing more, everything would be all right; unfortunately, the British have in their blood the wandering, insatiable, unsettled spirit of the tyrant and the slave, rebels by birth who, left to themselves, will fall into the violent anarchy he sees all around him. He reads the whole of British history as one consistent display of disorderly ambition; British kings were tyrants before the Romans came, and went back to their tyrannical old habits after the Romans left.

In this he is almost certainly assisted by a false etymology. Knowing little or no Classical history, he had no idea of the origin of the Greek word tyrannos (originally an Asian title for "king"); but in his time, the common British word for "lord" or "kinglet" seems to have been tigern(os), pronounced tiyern[23], modern Welsh teyrn or theyrn. This is in fact an exact equivalent of Latin dominus, "he to whom the house belongs"; "house" being domus in Latin and tegos in Gaulish (Welsh ty), and the suffix -nos being the same in both languages (and we are reminded that Latin and Celtic languages are so close that many linguists have spoken of a common Celto-Latin group)[24]. Gildas clearly identified the two words, tyrannus, tiyern[25], which look and sound the same and which, as far as he was concerned, described the same group of people. Clearly the lords of Britain before the Romans were tyrants by their own name as well as by nature; their very title proclaimed their tyranny. Had not a Roman author, Porphiry, described Britain as the generator of tyrants? Did this not prove that the province was intimately, natively connected with tyranny? Tyranny was as much part of its landscape as the Thames[26].

That tyranny was connected with usurpation fitted in entirely with his world-picture, since we have seen that he regarded the British as the natural servants of the Romans. The notion of a Briton, even one of noble birth within his race, wanting to lord it over Romans - or even refusing to obey them - was, for him, the same as an usurpation. The natural place of the British was in submission to the Romans, and it is no coincidence that the brief golden age of independent Britain was under the lordship of "almost the last of the Romans", Ambrosius Aurelianus. Britain was a land for Romans to rule; when British blood reached the top, that was as rightly to be described as tyranny as the onset of high temperature is a fever - and just as much a symptom of disease.

This is part of the reason why he has no idea of positive reform; the contemporary Gildasian-age form of government is the only one he knows, and he naturally falls into the mistaken belief that the old Romans had governed in the same fashion. Therefore, the notion of institutional reform is beyond him. He is clear enough about the centrifugal tendencies of the British constitution of his time, but it does not occur to him that they might be checked by a change in the legal and political machinery. His idea is simply that the "Roman" house of Ambrosius should command, and that others should obey.

His temperament may have contributed. He is a Christian clergyman, and he has not taken orders by chance or out of ambition: the concerns of the Christian faith, especially sin, repentance and eternal life, are absolutely central to him. He firmly believes that individual sin is the root of communal catastrophe, and that conversely individual penance and renewal will also rescue the whole of society. He is terribly troubled about the spiritual future of the five tyrants after death, and, one by one, he implores them all to change their lives (except for Maglocunus, for whom he has lost hope), not only for the sake of the country, but above all for the sake of their eternal souls. Even, therefore, if he could come to conceive of political reform, he would be likely to feel that it has little to do with the fundamental problem, which is the depravity of the individual will of his contemporaries. Restrain a bad man, and he will still be bad; what Gildas wants is that he should be converted. And if obedience to legitimate authority is part of his notion of goodness (as indeed it is: he says so himself in 4.1), then that obedience should be given willingly, or else it does not make for salvation.


[1]I translated this passage as "Britain is not without rectores (as if conceding a point), because the rhetorical reversal of the natural word-order - which is not habet Britannia rectores, but Britannia habet rectores - lays a great deal of emphasis on that habet. (You must always pay attention to Gildas' choice of words and style!) In English, which does not like altered word-orders, the same expressive need would be fulfilled by a concessive (I'll grant you, Britain has rectores) or by a rhetorical answer to an implicit question (Yes, Britain does have rectores); in both languages, this preludes to a but...

[2]The superiority of the highest king's law to that of lesser kings is an idea found in later Welsh laws, and explained by the legend of Maelgwn's acquisition of superiority over the kings of Wales through the trickery of Maeldav the Elder. This legend is found in legal texts, where it is told to explain why the law of Maelgwn is superior to that of other Welsh traditions, and why the lordship of Maeldav - variously described as Moel Esgidion and as Penardd in Arvon - enjoys particular rights. Quoted in JOHN RHYS, Celtic Britain, London 1904, 124-26.

[3]e must not mistake them with a class of functionaries known from late-imperial and early mediaeval history, the Roman Agentes in rebus, Ostrogothic Saiones, Carolingian Missi dominici.  These were wandering plenipotentiary inspectors charged with overseeing local powers and ensuring that central law was observed; but the rectores of Gildas were to all appearances resident emissaries, bound to one place, not peripatetic.

[4]Which Professor Charles Thomas argues is not a mistake, however. He believes the I was necessary to a numerical pattern underlying the inscription. THOMAS, Christian Celts: Messages and images, Stroud 1998, 195-197.

[5]That Protector was a territorial and probably royal title is also strongly suggested by some Welsh pedigrees featuring a "Protector son of Protec". These artificial names have most often to do with territorial denominations and clan ancestry, meaning that there was at some point a territorial title/clan lordship called Protector; a specific one, able to identify its subjects/members.

[6]Columbanus is familiar with episcopus, which he however uses mostly in negative contexts, e.g. when denouncing simoniacs and fornicators in a letter to Pope Gregory (the same in which he uses the complimentary expression auctor Giltas); when, however, he wishes to compliment (in the most floridly complimentary Latin I have ever read!) Popes Gregory and Boniface, he addresses them as egregio speculatori, outstanding bishop; and he uses speculatores, in his letter to Boniface, of bishops who do their duty. Clearly this was good Latin to him. G.S.M.WALKER (ed.), Sancti Columbani opera, Dublin 1953; and cf. the interesting comments about Columbanus' use of speculator in the context of "high language" addressed to a superior, THOMAS CHARLES-EDWARDS, Language and society among the Insular Celts, in MIRANDA J.GREEN (ed.), The Celtic world, London, Routledge, 1995, p.724. (Incidentally, what I said might suggest to someone unfamiliar with Columbanus that he spoke like a bootlicker: to the contrary, after his very florid opening compliments, his language to the Popes is free almost to the point of impudence.)

[7] Indeed, without an absolute assumption of the truth of the Catholic faith, Gildas' great enterprise makes no sense. If paganism had been an option among any part of the British nation, his mighty polemic, constructed wholly out of the flesh and bones of the Christian Bible and demanding a confident certainty that Christ and the Bible are the basis for any sensible discussion, would be useless and possibly counterproductive; it might encourage a Pagan backlash (compare the way it argues with that of The City of God, a work written under roughly similar conditions of national collapse and disorder by another churchman of genius who had to deal with the real danger of a Pagan revival).

[8]Germania 30. Tacitus (or his informer) had seen and admired these virtues among the Bataui of the Rhine mouth, a tribe recently broken off from the Chatti and which must have been his original source for stories about the Chatti and two other neighbouring tribes, the Cherusci and the Chauci. Tacitus' stories about the Chatti have the typical golden glow of nostalgia about them, which strongly suggests such a source as the Bataui - to whom the Chatti would have belonged in their own great semi-legendary past (ancient or vanished tribes are almost always great in the legends of their successors); but historical reality does not support them - the Chatti were not any more impresive than any other Germanic tribe - and the military qualities of the Bataui were certainly to be ascribed to Roman training!

[9]Whereas it is the chief issue in Nennius' version of the same legend; see below, Book 2, chs.4 and 5.

[10]G.K.CHESTERTON, The Aristocrat: "O blind your eyes and break your heart, and hack your hand away/ And lose your love and shave your head; but do not go to stay/ At the little place in What'sitsname, where folks are rich and clever,/ The golden and the goodly house where things grow worse for ever./ There are things you need not know of, though you live and die in vain,/ There are souls more sick of pleasure than you are sick of pain..."

[11]Penitential of Gildas, in GILDAS op.cit.

[12]Fragment 1, in GILDAS op.cit.

[13]Gildas has to stretch his evidence to fit his case (unless he is drawing on parallel, un-Biblical traditions of the Patriarchs): he describes Ham not as unfilial, which is the only charge against him in the Bible, but as the father of sorcerers; and he makes the sons of Jacob - except, one supposes, for Joseph - into idolaters, another very surprising charge. Being fratricides wasn't bad enough?

[14]Gesta Francorum 4.4.

[15]Gesta Francorum 5.16.

[16]ibid. 5.26

[17]ibid. 9.18, 25, 10.9

[18]ibid.5.29, 9.24.

[19]ibid.5.31. For St.Patrick and Coroticus, see below, bk.4, ch.1, and St.Patrick's Letter to Coroticus.

[20] Gildas' use of the barbarous word cyulae, "keels", for the three ships that took the first English to Britain, is untypical; it seems to want to make a point, almost to throw something in his readers' faces. Now, the English must have dominated Britain's eastern approaches and the Rhine trading route.  Procopius suggests they had a reputation as seamen: the tale of the English princess and the Varnian prince, 8.20.11-27, shows them ferrying a great army across the sea as competently as Byzantines. They may have been involved in trade even in British-held harbours. This may be what Gildas wanted to imply: "Your harbours", he might be saying, "are full of Saxon ships, so that you even got into the habit of using their barbarous word cyulae - the same cyulae that took your fathers' murderers to Britain!"

21]As indicated by the peculiar, intimate shame with which he confesses to the sins of deacons, 109.2.

[22]In the same way, much later, kings, priests and popes promoted the Crusades not only for the sake of Jerusalem, but because they felt that to fight against the common enemy might lead to the reunification of divided Christendom; and it is worth noting that the age of the Crusades shared with Gildas a basic problem with envisaging institutional reform and an inability to control the ambitions of great and small sovereigns and feudal lords. The failure of Gildas and his age spelled the ruin of Britain; the failure of the age of the Crusades led to a thousand years of European division.

[23]According to a typical British habit of turning hard G's into Y's. For the same reason, but in reverse, Gildas, or some scribe before him, spelled Aetius as Agitius, obviously pronounced Ayetius; and the Celtic names Rigothamus - a British general active in Gaul in the 460s - and Rigocatus - a British bishop of the same period - rang in Continental ears as Riotamus (Riyothamus) and Riocatus (Riyocatus). The English inherited this peculiarity; hence German gestern and tag = English yester+day, German weg = English way, German burg = English Bury (place name), etc.

[24]SNYDER op.cit. pp.105-106 and notes and sources thereto.

[25]The fact that tigernos was a native and not a Latin term may even have convinced him that tyrannus was a loan-word in the nobler language, that Latin had borrowed it to describe a typically British phenomenon.

[26]Gildas, of course, could not be expected to know that Celtic languages extended from Ireland to Asia Minor. But even if he had, there is little reason to believe that it would have done anything to alter his view of the British nature, except that he might have made it a pan-Celtic matter.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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