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

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Chapter 7.2: 442-468: a historical Reconstruction

Fabio P. Barbieri

I have suggested that the presence of what I called "the Ambrosian file" in Gildas is due to the selection made by Ambrosius and his successors of genuine Roman-age documents that favoured their point of view.  This suggests that the phenomenon was more general; that great houses such as the Ambrosiads and the Vortigernids each preserved their own "files", each slanted firmly towards dynastic views.  It is surely from such "files" that the positive view of "Maximus the tyrant" comes, vigorously contradicting Gildas, in the dream of Maxen Gwledig, and also in N.  Bards and monks may both have collaborated in their preservation; the clear influence of the Christian legends of Constantine the Great and St.Helen on Maxen tends to suggest that, however bardic its nature, monastic institutions had something to do with it.  We find such "files" in both the Gildasian age and early Wales, suggesting that they - or rather, the habit of forming them about a great family - were already in place in Gildasian times, and went on being gathered and preserved in surviving British dynasties and monasteries long after the fall of Gildasian Britain.

The Vortigernid files do not know any history before Vortigern himself.  The Vortigernid-Brituid genealogy begins with Magnus Maximus, whose son-in-law Vortigern is - with no ancestry we know of; and this affiliation is obviously fictitious.  The Vortigernid-Pascentiad one goes back two generations further, to Vortigern’s father Vitalis, grandfather Vitalinus, and three great-uncles Paul, Mauron and Bonus.  Before this there is only the place-name of Gloucester.  The Quimperlé genealogy repeats the origin of the house in Gloiu.  But whether the house was celebrated or obscure, whether Vitalinus was a self-made military man or a wealthy senator of lineage[1], his link with Gloucester must have been important enough to be remembered; and no doubt Gloucester, in its turn, did not suffer by its connection with the Emperor, legitimate or not.

Because of the prevalence of northern and Saxon concerns in the written evidence, I do not think that enough attention has been paid to some archaeological data.  To quote Snyder[2], "The late Roman walling and earthwork defences at Gloucester and Worcester seem to be a part of a scheme to fortify every major settlement along the tributaries of the Severn... The Verulamium Gate at Cirencester began the refacing of its tower and the rebuilding of the front face of its wall about 410."  Began, mind you; not completed.  Everyone knows that a major engineering project like that can take years.

To fortify every major settlement on the Severn and its tributaries was a work that demanded power on a national scale.  And we must remember that, as archaeologists date these developments mainly by coins, a work "begun about 410" might mean any time in the early fifth century, since 410 is the last date in which coins were struck for Britain or sent there.  Now, we know who defended the north (the tribes beyond the Wall), and who was supposed, from about 432, to defend the east and perhaps the Solent (the Saxons); but who was to defend these new, expensive and purposeful defences for the west?  Fortifications are not primary; no government not demonstrably insane builds or rebuilds large and expensive defence systems without first being able to count on the troops to man them; and we know that, far from disregarding the question of trained manpower, the government of Vitalinus were so concerned with it that they sent for the Saxons when a crisis struck.

The valley of the Severn, therefore, must have had its own regular defenders, trained, equipped, and paid.  Where they were recruited, we cannot be sure; probably in the uplands of present-day Wales and the Pennines, which would, then as now, not be without their hardy but impoverished mountaineer types, beloved of army recruiters the world over[3].  The close connection between Vitalinus and Gloucester, that is with the lower Severn, may have involved wealth: in late-Roman times the Severn must have surpassed the Thames as a route for seaborne trade with the rich Roman East, which was such a major feature of British life for two centuries.  The pre-eminence of the maritime west may have had something to do with the means by which Vitalinus gained supreme power.

The 410s seem to have seen both the beginnings of the Severn towns’ fortification and the defeat of the Picts.  This indicates a vigorous defence policy, which probably insured order and economic stability in the Britanniae, allowing that age of prosperity that shone so brightly in the memories of Constantius and Gildas.  Two decades later, we find the whole Romano-British polity, including the armed forces, united in disappointment and contempt towards the Mild King.  This seems to follow very significantly on this period of apparent successful military and political activity.  The Mild King may have succeeded a more bellicose and successful predecessor; certainly he was felt, not only to be absurdly wrapped up in religion, but also inadequate to the task at hand.

Vitalinus would therefore have been called to the throne with the expectation that he would return to the earlier path of military endeavour and - according to E - religious indifference; and there is nothing to show that he did not at first fulfil that mandate.  To the contrary, N2 seems to indicate that Ambrosius claimed to have improved on, not discarded, Vitalinus' policies; and this suggests that a favourable view existed, at least, of his early years.

Apart from the plague, a number of strategic demands may have arisen.  Firstly, the Franks were at their most active in the 420s, and it is interesting that Vitalinus sent not for them but for Saxons, who feature in later history as their hereditary enemies.  Second, it seems that Pictish and Irish pirates, made wise by past failures, learned to by-pass the well-defended Wall and Severn valley areas, to raid the broad and defenceless east.  Then or later, Irishmen from Munster settled in numbers in Dyved, directly across the Welsh watershed from the mouth of the Severn - an ideal location for ship-raiding piracy.  Gildas (and N, and the sources for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) says that they were settled to guard against the Picts.  However, though the lower Severn was a natural target for the Irish, no Saxon was settled there.  Archaeology tells us that they were settled in a definite area, the east, no nearer to the Severn valley than Portsmouth, nor anywhere near the Wall.  The Wall had its own defenders: the visible continuity between the tribes of the late Roman age and the dynasties of the legendary British "old North" shows that, from beginning to end, it was the likes of the Gododdin who defended the north.

Of course, the Irish settlers in Dyved may themselves have been part of this system of defence, put there to guard the mouth of the Severn against their fellow-islanders.  South Ireland had a number of Christian foundations that proudly claimed to have started before Patrick, and even one high kingship - the overlordship of Munster at Cashel - that does not seem to have any pre-Christian roots at all; its foundation legend is Christian, and its name Roman (Castella)[4].  The Christian and Roman features apply specifically to Cashel; elsewhere in Munster, a good few origin stories have clearly pagan, even druidic features, such as the presence of the legendary druid Mug Roith to divide two Eoganachta twins who represented two tribes[5].

Now, let us suggest that political penetration of Ireland, especially in Munster, was part of Romano-British political activity.  How can we envisage it?  It must have been somewhat fitful; not only because of the limited resources available to Roman Britain alone, but also because of two major interruptions - first, the unmilitary period of the Mild King, and then the Saxon revolt.  My point is that the fitful nature of Romano-British involvement, broken at a significant moment by the collapse of Romano-British order, seems the chronological correspondent of the curious pattern of early and politically prominent, but fitful and patchy, Christianization in Munster.  The first stage of a British intervention in Munster, whether directly or through proxies, would indubitably aim to conquer the central institution, the provincial high kingship; hence the establishment of Cashel with its Roman name and Christian legends.  The conquering push would soon spend itself, possibly even before the Saxon revolt, since it is to be doubted that Britain had the resources to subdue an Irish province in detail, tuath by tuath; and this corresponds to the fact that while the legend of Cashel is Christian in character, the foundation legends of individual tribes within Munster are pagan.

But British intervention in Ireland had had one aspect which, though late in its brief history, was itself permanent, and survived its policies: the Pelagian migration.  It seems to me highly likely that the collapse of Vitalinus’ government in 442, stranding the Pelagian communities in their place of exile, was a major impulse towards their cultural assimilation to Ireland, including such things as the use of Ogham rather than Latin for monuments and grave stones.  The Pelagian settlers established church institutions that lasted for centuries.  They all come from the same area of Ireland which formed an ogham-using cultural province with suspected Pelagian features, and took the writings of Pelagius - in some cases even with his name proudly displayed as the author - back to Wales and to the continent[6].

To judge from the lack of Ogham “son of” stones, they did not settle in the north.  I suspect southern Ireland could find common ground with the Romano-British against the northern tribes of Ulster, Meath and Connaught.  Romano-British policy must certainly have treated the latter as enemies, to judge by the direction of Coroticus’ slaving raids; I do not think it is a coincidence that Coroticus, almost certainly the British-sponsored king of Strathclyde, raided Patrick’s converts.  Patrick was based in Ulster.  It seems likely that Romano-British diplomacy played on age-old rivalries in Ireland itself, sharpened in the course of the years by the relative proximity of Leinster and Munster to Roman culture, and the distance of Ulster and especially Connacht.  As I pointed out, St.Patrick feels that the Romans to whom he writes will not have much sympathy for the northern raider - he works the charges against him as hard as he can, to make the “truly” Roman aristocracy disgusted with him - but they will want to back him for political convenience.  What political convenience?  I doubt that the Pelagian infection had gone so deep that the Roman British aristocracy could commit itself to the destruction of Catholic outposts; not if two journeys by St.Germanus were enough to deal with them.  However many sympathizers Pelagianism had in Britain, they were not enough to force a break with Rome or even to resist an unarmed envoy.  It is likelier that Coroticus’ armed power had made him indispensable; and by the same token, strategic success in Ireland has been achieved probably at least in part by giving his likes free rein.  Coroticus was, in my view, active in Vitalinus' reign, and his impunity may have been a part of what seems to have been an active and vigorous, if perhaps not far-sighted, defence policy.

It must be of this period that the Gallic Chronicle of 452 was thinking when it spoke of Britain being struck by various disasters before it fell to the Saxons.  These were to become a locus communis and find their way into Rome's Sybilline Books.  However, the Chronicler was looking at British history in the light of the Saxon revolt, and may well tend to see any British misfortune as part of a chain preluding to the great disaster.  We hear of a plague and of an attempted Pictish invasion; later, there is trouble between Saxon settlers and Romano-British landowners, who felt the burden of annona too much for them (this might indicate a decline in farm production); in 429 we hear of at least one barbarian raid, though it does not seem to have amounted to much, and of a fire that destroyed a large part of a town.  We perceive a quite vicious kind of litigiousness in the great quarrel between Patrick, Catholic Bishop-elect of Ireland, and the British episcopate, who seem to have used every legal trick in the book to destroy his position - not excluding Coroticus' raid; and E seems to think that British addiction to legal quarrels had reached danger level.  (If E's reaction to the Mild King's fall was immediate, he was probably writing before the height of the row between Patrick and his British seniores, which I would date to the late 430s and up to the Saxon revolt of 441-42.)  Intense litigiousness and reduced scruples tend to reflect a situation of increasing tensions and decreasing opportunities in a society, and it might be that by the late 430s, and in spite of what might have been Vitalinus' activism, the gloss was going off the earlier British "economic miracle" (which seems to have done quite well without its own money, using bullion or continental coins).

The Mild King fell as the Frankish crisis of the 420s was still in full swing.  As we remember from our study of St.Patrick, the Franks took advantage of the chaos left by the enthronement and destruction of the usurper John in Rome (425) to raid and sack Gaul at will, until Aetius slowly reimposed order.  As I pointed out, Vitalinus did not look for hired swords or settlers among the closest Germanic tribes - Franks and Frisians - but among Saxons, who appear in later history as the Franks' hereditary enemies.  However vague the Roman use of the term Saxon, it can hardly have stretched as far as mistaking them with the Franks; and if the Angles indeed came from Angeln - at the throat of the Schleswig-Jutland peninsula - they were quite as distant from the Franks and from Roman territory as a British mission could reach.  It looks as though Britain wanted swordsmen who not only would fight the Picts, but would not be too easily tempted to make friends with Franks and Frisians either.  What we can see of the northern defences suggests that the local British armed forces were largely tribal[7], with all the problems this entails: limited technical resource, excessive local loyalty, an incapacity to move out of area swiftly or efficiently, and probably an equal incapacity to return once the war was over.  Tribes only leave their own home grounds to settle elsewhere.  The British, perhaps, found it simply impossible to move their northern or western troops to cover the flat and all too easily invaded east.  A believable if not necessarily reliable Galfridian item tells us that the English leader asked Vitalinus for official status and was refused.  If he was in fact from Angeln, in the distant depths of Germany, this shows an interesting knowledge of the niceties of Roman attitudes and how an ambitious northern gentleman might make a career in the imperial army.  Vitalinus' refusal did not, perhaps, set off the relationship on the best footing; within ten years at most, the Saxons were at war against him.

The harder we look at what we can find of the first Saxon revolt, taking all the evidence into account, the less like Gildas' apocalypse it seems.  It was surely nasty enough; but there is little to prove that any Saxon actually claimed sovereignty over the island.  The earliest Welsh legend, O - written when records were still available - remembered that Vitalinus went on being king, however emasculated his rule, until he was killed by Ambrosius; later legends never actually disagree – his sovereignty always goes on until destroyed by the Avenger from the Continent, though the latest legend replaces Ambrosius with Germanus.  Vortigern is never the victim of barbarians, but always of Ambrosius or of a figure incarnating Roman righteousness.

And that being the case, the Saxon revolt seems to have intended, not to take over the island - whatever the impression left on Gallic observers that it had passed in dicione Saxonum - but to impose their point of view on the government; not unlike the occasional clashes between Constantinople and its barbarian troops, in which food was always an issue.  The continental Roman century is dotted from beginning to end with such revolts, from the great war of Alaric and the Visigoths (407-411), whose reaction to hunger took them to Rome and then to the fertile fields of Aquitaine; to the two successive outbursts of Theoderic Strabo and then of his enemy Theoderic the Great, both of whom, though they were officials of the Empire - magistri militum - revolted over a matter of non-delivery of food supplies.  Both Strabo (481) and the other Theoderic (487) besieged Constantinople, whose walls, however, unlike Rome's, proved proof against both.  Both wars were followed by new agreements between the imperial government and the armies, including restoring the title of magister militum to their commanders; Theoderic the Great ended up being sent to Italy, as a perfectly loyal imperial ally, to dethrone Odoacer.  In effect, all that these wars amounted to - in the minds of the German soldiers, at least - were a kind of rather violent soldier's strike, demanding their rights even from the Emperor; once they had got what they wanted, they were perfectly willing to settle down again under the same imperial ensigns they had so recently burned.

Gildas' notice that the Saxons did not stay after their first revolt, but "went home", means that they did not settle all the regions they had devastated, even in the meagre form of a few settler families taking over large estates left vacant.  Why?  Given that Welsh legends are unanimous that Vortigern became their puppet ruler, the likeliest reason is that they have regarded the whole war as a punishment raid to extort the annona they had been denied, and that, having taught the British a severe lesson and installed what they regarded as efficient arrangements for its collection, they were content to return to what they regarded as theirs by right, the parts of the island they had been living in before the war, enlarged perhaps, but not hugely so.  Gildas speaks with his usual precision: the flames of the Saxon war "licked" the shores of the western ocean, occidentalem trucique oceanum lingua delamberet, that is they did not completely burn the western parts of Britain; but this "licking" is preceded by the complete and savage destruction of a number (plural) of walled Roman towns.  Gildas implies that these cities were not re-occupied or rebuilt, but left to moulder with their corpses unburied in the streets; as he is not speaking of the west of the country, he must be speaking of the east - and this agrees (apart from recent scholarly doubts) with the condition of Caistor-by-Norwich, a Roman town of some size subjected to violent destruction and never rebuilt.

More indirectly but more tellingly, we might say that there is a line from Colchester to Lincoln and to Kingston-upon-Hull, east of which there is no continuity between Roman and modern geography.  In most of England, the majority of Roman towns and cities have carried on into the present day as county and episcopal seats and market towns, and the Roman road network has remained the backbone of trade and movement; and conversely most modern towns can be traced back to the Roman age.  In East Anglia all the major towns - Ipswich, Norwich, Great Yarmouth - are of Saxon or later vintage; and while the kings of neighbouring English kingdoms settled in Roman cities - the king of Essex in London, that of Lindsey in Lincoln, that of Kent in Canterbury, that of Wessex in Winchester - the kings of East Anglia established new royal villas such as Rendlesham, with no relation to previous Roman settlement.  Smaller-scale analysis shows no continuity between Roman and Saxon settlement patterns[8]; it is as if the Saxons had emptied the land even of existing farm borders and buildings before redistributing it among themselves.  Nothing quite like this is visible in the rest of Britain[9].

Gildas himself, however great his emphasis on Saxon destruction, tells us that the Saxons were not out to destroy Britain for the fun of it, but to take control: the issue, remember, was unpaid annona.  Therefore the annihilation of Roman life east of the Fens should not be seen as mere wanton revenge, but as a deliberate political act[10].  Its political effect was to fence off for themselves a part of Britain which was so indubitably "Saxon" that even Gildas unconsciously accepted that, when the "most savage raiders" went "home", they do not leave the island: their "home" is a place from which they can keep control over the rest of the island - that is, a part of it.

That Gildas said that the flame of war reached right across the island to the western ocean, suggests that the first spate of destruction, intended to carve out territory for themselves, was followed by a direct assault on the core of Vortigern's power near Gloucester.  This would have been meant to show that there was no place where he could hide from his angry troops; and it would be at that point, I think, that the emperor and his senate would decide to capitulate and accept the rebels' terms.  As I pointed out, a distorted mention of this seems preserved in Nennius ch.45.  Vitalinus was not overthrown; his government was not destroyed; Gildas does not say that they were, and even the Chronicle of 452 can be read to mean that the Saxons controlled Britain, not that they ruled it.  All succeeding British ages were clear that Vortigern lived, to be killed by Ambrosius (or St.Germanus); and given that the dynastic hatred between the two houses lived on, one tends to give some weight to their unanimous witness.

An important fact is that Gallic and Gaul-related notices about Britain’s plight cluster in a few short years, a decade after the first collapse.  The Chronicle of 452 was written at some point between 452 and 455; the Letter to Agitius was written at some stage between 446, Aetius’ third consulate, and his murder in 455[11].  An extremely well dated Gaulish document, Sidonius Apollinaris’ panegyric to the pretender Avitus, has a political message about Britain: it is a Roman country beset by barbarian enemies and in need of rescue by “Caesar”.  Rather than say so explicitly (probably because Avitus, a Visigothic front man with roughly as much power as Sooty the glove puppet, had not the least chance of doing anything about it), Sidonius draws a wholly unhistorical picture of Julius Caesar entering Britain not in order to conquer it but to defend it from Picts, Scots and Saxons.  What Sidonius is doing here is setting up an image of the first Emperor “rescuing” Britain in front of the pretender Emperor (Avitus happened to be his father-in-law) and of his backers; “Caesar” carrying his protective, law-enforcing function even across the ocean.  It is, of course, as ridiculous a device as the rest of the poem, of whose absurdity I think Sidonius was aware; he was too learned a man not to know what Caesar went to Britain to do, but perhaps he thought that Avitus’ Visigothic backers did not.  Sidonius’ panegyric was written, with contemporary conditions firmly in mind, in the last months of 455, to be recited at Avitus’ enthronement at the start of the year.  It can only be read as a picture of contemporary conditions, with Britain being then, at that precise date – 1 January 456 – a Roman country beset and occupied by barbarians, and in urgent need of rescue from overseas.

The reason for this burst of interest in the condition of the Romanam insulam is also found in the panegyric.  Sidonius informs us that Saxon naval raids against Armorica, of the utmost ferocity, had suddenly started in the reign of Petronius (13 March-31 May 455), only to die down with equally dramatic suddenness in the early months of that of Avitus (who was “enthroned” on July 9, 455).  It seems certain, from the way Sidonius refers to these horrors, that they had been mercifully short-lived.  It is not until the 470s that he has occasion to refer to Saxon pirates again.  In fact, we can probably accept his testimony that they had all taken place in a few months in the spring, summer and autumn of 455.

The Letter to Agitius is certainly earlier, since Aetius was murdered early in 455; in fact, the “enthronement” of Avitus was part of the fall-out from his murder.  Some at least of the surviving British potentates appealed to Aetius, in typical but grossly uninspired "artistic" rhetoric[12], to come and free them from the barbarians.  As it seems to have come to Gildas via the Ambrosian file, it must have been preserved by the Ambrosian party; it is not at all unlikely that it originated with them in some fashion, perhaps as representatives of a previous government not involved with the call to the Barbarians.  This would make it a party document and put its testimony in some doubt.  Certainly Aetius showed no great desire to intervene in Britain, but this is more likely to be attributed to cold-blooded political calculation than to any problem with the source of the appeal.[13].

However, it suggests a reason for the sudden burst of Saxon pirate activity and Gaulish-Roman interest in Britain.  The Saxon raids follow suspiciously close on the fall of the letter’s addressee; and it was those raids that awakened the interest at least of Sidonius, and perhaps of the author of the Chronicle of 452, in Britain’s barbarian oppressors.  So why would the Saxons decide to raid Gaul in 455?  It sounds as though they had heard of the appeal to the uir Romanae potestatis, possibly following his dramatic defeat of his former ally Attila in 452 and the latter’s death (of natural causes) not long after.  Cowed, perhaps, by the great name of Aetius, the fox of Gaul, they had not done anything until he was known to have been killed by the emperor Valentinianus III, and he in turn killed by a friend of the dead general.  At this point, they may have decided to give a memorable reminder to Gaul, to discourage any further bright ideas about meddling in British affairs.

There is another possible reason.  In a diplomatic letter of 448, Attila the Hun claimed to be overlord – among other Germanic peoples – of “the Islands of the Ocean”, that is probably Britain[14]; and the popularity throughout England of place names in Hun- (e.g. Huncote, Hundon, Hunningham, Hunston) might suggest, at least, that the Huns loomed large enough in the minds of the early English to name people (a name Hunstan is attested) and places for them.  It might therefore be that the death of Attila, rather than of Aetius, was the deciding factor, and that Saxon raids and general violence were a by-product of the collapse of his empire, that brought chaos to his previously subject Germanic tribes.

However this may be, we notice that they seem to have singled out Armorica for what seems to have been a fearsome but temporary series of raids in 455 – but no earlier or later.  Can it be a coincidence that this sudden outburst of Saxon activity against a single Gallic province, with the corresponding and equally sudden Gallic interest in matters British, came at a period of sudden and momentous political change, in which both the Western Roman Empire and the Hunnish Empire lost their heads, and both disintegrated?  There was no stability in the Roman West after the deaths of Aetius and of Valentinianus III, nor among the barbarians after that of Attila.

Either way, what this sudden squall of raids, swiftly begun, swiftly ended, strongly suggests, is that the Saxons raided and murdered not haphazardly and routinely, but at significant times and responding to political conditions.  As with my analysis of their activities in the great revolt, we are left with the impression not of an uncontrolled and disorderly horde, but of a political entity directed by an intelligence (whether that of a single man or perhaps of some sort of council of elders) with its own plans and strategy, capable both of unleashing relentless and frightful violence and of putting a dead stop to it whenever it suited it.  We do not hear of Saxons in Gaul again until the 470s, when a messenger comes hot-foot from Saintes to Sidonius in Clermont-Ferrand, bringing the unwelcome and surprising news of their return as the bishop was half-way through a letter.

It may have been a coincidence that Sidonius was writing that letter to one Namatius, an admiral of the Visigothic king Euric, by then unchallenged lord of south-east Gaul; anyway, Sidonius – by then a bishop and the most prominent Roman in Auvergne – hurried to give Namatius a load of what he regards as good advice, telling him all he remembers of the Saxons – no doubt, from those terrible days in 455 - with the prosy self-confidence of an old man whose writing has been admired all his life.  (A particular warning not to be lulled into complacency by bad weather suggests that Sidonius knew of an occasion when Saxon craft surprised a Roman fleet or town by attacking during a storm.)  There is no doubt that the Saxons of whom the old bishop knows so much are those settled in Britain, since he speaks of them turning their sails away from the continent[15].  And they are not nice people, these Saxons: their terror tactics include sacrificing every tenth prisoner by hanging or drowning.  No wonder that English historians so rarely quote these remarks of their old bishop’s; they certainly put the earliest English in what might be constructed as a somewhat unattractive light (though not unsuited to a nation that still makes heroes of such loathsome pirates as Drake and the butcher of Naples, Nelson).  This makes it perhaps easier to understand why the British, forced to live near them and under their control, hated them so much.

One tends to assume that, after the disaster, Vitalinus lived in Gloucester, behind newly-built city walls and as far as practical from his terrible supposed vassals; but there is another town that might have pertained to him in the days of his decline - none other than Amesbury.  O did not place Vortigern's great fortress - the sacred spot of British royalty, which the Saxons could never take even when they had taken all the rest of the country - in any known Roman town, let alone in Vitalinus' own Gloucester, but in a place called Dinas Emrys, whose location in Eryri (Snowdon) is patently late and adventitious.  Emrys/Ambrosius is said to have taken it from Vortigern - commanding him to find a lesser royal fortress elsewhere - and to have made it his own: that is why it bears his name.  We must see it as the sacred centre of his royalty and the last resort of the British monarchy.  Amesbury is English for Dinas Emrys, "Ambrosius' burgh" or castle, and sits across the Avon from an undeniable hillfort, Vespasian's Camp - the exact kind of place on which the imagination of a Celtic bard would seize as a sacred site and fortress; and we have seen that the storytellers who applied the interpretative legend of the fortress and the dragons to the house of Vortigern were steeped in Celtic ideology to a point where their Christianity, if it existed at all, must be regarded as no more than nominal.  Legend connects Amesbury directly to Ambrosius' war of liberation against the Saxons and to his re-establishment of British monarchy; it is, in that sense, the sacred resort of British monarchy - just as the "impregnable fortress" of Dinas Emrys is said to be.

In turn, whatever Ambrosius' relationship with the Wiltshire-Hampshire Avon, it seems quite likely that his family had originally nothing to do with it.  If the considerable wealth found in the Hoxne Hoard marked as belonging to someone called Aurelius pertains to Ambrosius' family[16], then they must have hailed from what is today East Anglia.  The Mild King, says Gildas, was murdered in the very same storm, that is, by the Saxons who were destroying East Anglian Roman sites such as Caistor-by-Norwich, and apparently taking particular care to destroy every vestige of Roman landowning patterns east of the Fens and north of the Essex Stour, as if there was something there that they had reason to want obliterated.  Nothing of this proves anything, but it does suggest that there is at least a possibility that the Mild King might have lived, after his dethronement, cheek by jowl with the barbarians; and it is just possible that this might have given him an incentive to throw in his lot with the party that wanted to force their expulsion.  Contact with them may not have endeared them to him; as a devout Catholic, he would have loathed their unreformed ways (they are unlikely to have invented human sacrifice ex novo for the benefit of Armorica in 455).  Indeed, it seems not unlikely that these same practices motivated Vitalinus to refuse their leader the rank of “consul or princeps”.

Now why would Vitalinus, after being reduced to the condition of the Saxons' puppet emperor, want to take his residence in Amesbury?  There is a sinister and fitting parallel in modern history.  When Hitler captured France, he decided to govern it largely through the puppetized remnants of its defeated government; that government took its residence, not in the ancient capital of Gaul, Lyon, nor in a great city like Marseille or a historical town such as Avignon, but in the insignificant spa resort of Vichy.  Likewise, when Mussolini, overthrown by the legitimate Italian authorities, was set up again by Nazi bayonets to be the puppet ruler of however much of Italy they could control, he took residence not in Rome, Florence, Turin or Milan - not even in his own province of Romagna - but in the otherwise virtually unknown lakeland resort of Saló.  The symbolic value of this may or may not have been intended; one may also suppose a certain unwillingness on the part of the occupying authorities to allow their puppets even direct contact with the real power centres of the country, and, on the other hand, a sort of shrinking on the part of the puppets themselves from excessive closeness with their masters, and from the power centres those masters effectively controlled.  In both cases, we are speaking about the country's former governments, put back into the semblance of power and effectively controlled by a very ruthless foreign army.  The similarities are striking, though I do not claim that they prove anything.

Gildas sometimes describes events for which he gives no authority and whose sources we cannot trace even by inference, and that yet must have happened in the way he describes them.  The most important is his description of the period of Saxon power that followed the war.  He admits that "a certain amount of time" passed between the shattering Saxon victory and the gathering of the ciues to Ambrosius; and this is a fact.  Saxon pre-eminence, whatever form it took, was unchallenged long enough for the Gallic chronicle of 452 to record as a fact that Britain had fallen to the Saxons in 441/42; as late as ten years after the fact, it still seemed quite stable.  The fact that Verulamium, one of Britain's largest Roman cities, went on, if not untroubled, at least with a strong continuity, until about 470[17], shows that an accommodation with the surviving Romans could be reached.

We probably have the name of the Saxon leader, the one who had originally been refused the title of consul or princeps.  The Saxon Chronicle speaks of one Aelle of Sussex, said to have come to Sussex with "three keels", the same number known to Gildas, and, after eight years, to have fought the British at mearcredes burna, a vaguely-named "river of the agreed frontier" or "of debate".  This suggests that until then there had been peace between the British and Aelle's Saxons in their "agreed frontier"; eight years from settlement to rebellion, of course, suit the maximum of ten years I have suggested.  Bede calls him the first high king or breatwalda of the English.  If we accept the Saxon Chronicle's dating, something like a century stands between him and Bede's second breatwalda, Ceaulin.

Aelle is all but unknown to later legend, which hardly bothers to coordinate Hengist and Horsa with him. No English dynasty except the kings of Sussex claimed him for their ancestor.  This is particularly significant because it has been shown that Anglo-Saxon genealogies are very artificial, and therefore could contain any ancestor the current king wished.  The Sussex claim is very implausible.  Fifth-century Saxon settlement there, as in Wessex and Essex, is thin to nonexistent, and the land was not conquered until the later sixth century.  The very name of Saxons for the Teutons settled in those areas shows that they lived originally among Britons, since Saxon was (and remains) the British word for the people who call themselves English.  The three "sons" attributed to Aelle by the Chronicle were, even John Morris could see[18], the names of much later tribal entities; one, Cissa, is the eponym of Chichester, which stayed British long after Aelle's time.  It seems very likely that these tribes affiliated themselves deliberately to a great hero of the distant past; and it follows that no other English dynasty was claiming him when the learned of Sussex claimed him for their own[19], wanting a prestigious ancestor for this most obscure of Saxon kingdoms[20]. If Aelle was not claimed by anyone except the isolated, obscure and late-settled Sussex, it means that there was something about his memory that made him usnsuitable for a fictional ancestry; and what could it be - given that he was remembered as the first English king of Britain - except that he was known to have died without heirs?

Aelle is not a legendary figure.  His very pale and faded quality shows that his claim to memory was not the colourful, lively presence of a legend.  He remained in English minds as a great figure in the earliest days of Saxon settlement, not the first in a regular succession of English high kings of Britain so much as an illustrious early precedent, establishing an English claim to high kingship over the island that must already by Ceaulin's time have been in the realm of ancient things.  Conversely, while Ceaulin cannot be said to have ruled anything like all of Britain or even England, he was probably the first English leader in a century to successfully raise the standard of English revolt against the British (in about 560-70) and begin their complete overthrow; he might be said, in that sense, to replicate the achievement of whoever led the first English/Saxon revolt, establishing the Teuton settlers as a legitimate kingdom.  Later, the name Aelle was given to, or taken by, a very early member of the dynasty of Deira (south Northumbria), a kingdom established in the late 500s; which suggests that it was attractive to English would-be founders of kingdoms.  In short, there is no reason not to think that Aelle was a historical figure, and the leader of the Saxon revolt.

Whatever the state of Saxon control over the Britanniae, they cannot have ever managed untroubled authority.  Sidonius’ panegyric suggests a Roman country threatened, rather than occupied, by Picts, Scots and Saxons; Gildas tells us that isolated groups managed to keep some sort of independence or at least autonomy, resorting to hill fortresses, forests and fortified sea promontories: alii montanis collibus, minacis, praeruptis, uallatis et densissimis saltibus marinisque rupibus... in patria, licet trepide, perstabant.  We should expect Saxon control to be weakest in the furthest regions, where dense forests, rocky hills and mountains, and rugged promontories, were common; and where Roman civilization was thinnest.  Indeed, it seems likely that, by weakening the British government to the point of puppetization, the Saxon may have encouraged already independent-minded northern caterans of Coroticus' kind to further stretch their freedom of action, especially if, as Sidonius seems to suggest, Saxon success had emboldened Picts and Scots to try it on in some parts of the country at least.  To defend themselves, the Northerners must have taken action even more independently than usual.

A local power of Coroticus' kind cannot have been greatly affected by events in the distant south of the island, and may have accepted Saxon power far more in theory than in practice - if at all; and any Saxons among such tribes would find themselves not only very distant - even by their favourite sea routes - from their home base on England's east coast, but among an unfamiliar people and culture, speaking an unfamiliar language and acting and associating in unfamiliar ways.  Living in the Romanized parts of the island, they must have been most familiar with Roman talk and Roman habits.  In the cold and distant highlands, they would hardly be more at home than Cumberland's English soldiers among the clansmen.  From the beginning, the North, and perhaps the rocky West - Lancashire, Wales, Devon-Cornwall - must have been almost beyond Saxon grasp.

It is from this new political landscape, of scattered local powers and terrifying yet ineffective Saxon might, that the rebellion matures.  The precision of Gildas' language leads us to notice that, when he speaks of those who perstabant, remained, he makes no mention of actual resistance, though he said that they stood licet trepide, "however fearfully"; this suggests a certain amount of accommodation, however unstable and two-faced on both sides, between surviving British powers and conquerors.  But the Saxons felt secure: the "most cruel robbers then returned home".  The period that followed must have been one of uneasy peace, with Saxon dicio resented or not even recognized by outlying British powers - all those hill-forts, forests fastnesses and promontories - and eventually resulting in war.

As Gildas describes it with typical accuracy, the process has two stages: Roborante Deo reliquiae, quibus confugiunt undique de diuersis locis miserrimi ciues.  First, Roborante Deo reliquiae, "as God was strengthening the remnants"; as these reliquiae are contrasted with the ciues, they clearly are the "remains" of the upper class, still in control of various regions or estates.  Remember Gildas' usage, in which Britannia is to be identified, not with the whole citizenship, but with the upper classes alone: the reliquiae of Britain are the reliquiae of its aristocracy.  Then, quibus confugiunt undique de diuersis locis miserrimi ciues, to whom most miserable fellow-countrymen fled for refuge[21] from every place; that is, once they were aware that these reliquiae were still independent and "being strengthened by God", that is growing, rather than diminishing, in power, ordinary Britons started fleeing to them. And the clash came, duce Ambrosio Aureliano uiro modesto, the leader being the modest hero, Ambrosius Aurelianus.  The first effect was a rush of victory: quis uictoria Domino annuente cessit, to them Victory yelded, the Lord assenting thereto[22]. Suddenly the Saxons found themselves faced with a large and angry enemy, not broken up into many unorganized little local powers, but with one coordinating centre and a leader.  The result was an overthrow so thunderous that its noise rang as far as Ravenna.

We next hear of Britain from Gaulish sources in connection with the war of the Loire (468). In an important passage, Gregory of Tours mentions British forces in Bourges about 468.  Unfortunately this part of the History of the Franks (II.18) is unfinished, or else – as has been suggested – a fragment of an annal edited into his work; but what we have is clear enough.  He describes a war involving the military adventurer Odovacar, the Visigoths, and two Romano-Gaulish potentates, Syagrius and Count Paul (whose late-Roman title suggests a high functionary at an imperial court), as well as the Franks of Childeric (Clovis' father).  If we take the passage to be in chronological order, it reads something like this: 1) Childeric fights a battle at Orléans.  No victory is mentioned.  2) In the next sentence we hear that "Odovacer penetrated as far as Angers".  This must mean that Odovacar was the victor at Orleans: he pushed Childeric back and drove hard for the mouth of the Loire. Odovacar’s soldiers are described as Saxons.  3) A pestilence kills many people, and Aegidius, the chief Romano-Gaulish potentate, dies.  (As plagues do not happen or end overnight, this must be seen as going on all the time while armies rage around the Loire.)  Aegidius' son Syagrius takes over.  4) British troops are occupying Bourges; the Visigoths, in the wake of Odovacer (which makes the British allies of Aegidius), drive them out and defeat them heavily at Bourg-de-Deols.  The geography shows that the British were holding the Cher valley to cover the strategic Loire bend, but that, by driving for the mouth of the Loire, Odovacar had isolated them.  5) A mixed army with a Frankish contingent led by Childeric drives back the Visigoths under Count Paul; but 6) Odovacar takes Angers, his strategic target.  7) The next day, Count Paul and his Frankish allies swoop on Odovacar.  8) Count Paul is killed in battle, but the Romano-Gaulish and Franks are victorious; the future king of Italy is driven back, never to return.  9) Saxon contingents left on Loire island strongholds are then mopped up by Franks and Romano-Gauls.  10) Odovacar has meanwhile switched allies, using the Franks to smash an Alamannic invasion of Italy.  (This proves this really is the Odovacar, not a homonym.)

The wording suggests a large alliance involving Visigoths and Saxons to conquer the whole course of the Loire; unless indeed the fact that the Visigoths are not actually mentioned until after the battle of Orleans should suggest that they opportunistically joined Odovacar's campaign afterwards.  But the refined international diplomacy to which the new Germanic kings of the Mediterranean had quickly become used suggests that such concerted action was hardly beyond their abilities.

By the same token, the British presence in Bourbon is not in the nature of a raid, but of a major and probably permanent operation.  The Visigoths only destroy them after Odovacar has taken Orleans and cut them off, and are said in turn to carry much booty when Count Paul beats them.  What is more (if, of course, I'm right) the fact that they only seized Bourges from the British after Odovacar had cut them off suggests that until his intrusion, the Romano-Gaulish-British-Frankish group was too strong for them.  Bourges, a great fortress Caesar found necessary to subdue, covers the Loire bend and the Seine, the core of Aegidius' and Syagrius' Romano-Gaulish dominion; the fact that British troops fought there proves they had a strategic interest in protecting the Romano-Gaulish lands from the Visigoths.

The events of this war as it concerns Britain are not entirely clear, since two other sources – Jordanes and Sidonius Apollinaris – contradict each other flatly.  According to Jordanes, bishop of Ravenna and writer of a history of the Gothic peoples, Anthemius, beleaguered Emperor of the West, Brittonum solacia postulauit[23], "begged the help of the British" to rescue Gaul from Odoacer and the Visigoths, both Arian.  His appeal was not vain: the British were able to send no less than 12,000 men[24] "across the ocean", under the command of one Rigothamus.  Sidonius, however, tells us that, even before the Visigoth Euric actually began hostilities, the British were already “on the Loire” (super Ligerim) and implies that they were there to buttress an imperial and Catholic order threatened principally by Burgundians and Visigoths (Odovacar was clearly an opportunistic interloper).

Insufficient attention has been paid to this testimony of Sidonius’.  It is absolutely contemporary, coming from a letter in which he describes his attempts to save his former friend Arvandus, Prefect of the Gauls, who had been caught red-handed encouraging Euric to, (1) refuse recognition to Anthemius, a “Greek emperor” who, truth to tell, had been imposed by Constantinople; and (2) “make war against the British placed on the Loire”; because, (3), the “law of nations” had decreed that Gaul should be partitioned between Burgundians and Visigoths.  In other words, the purely diplomatic refusal to recognize Anthemius is to go together with an effective and bloody war against the British, whose forces are already on the Loire, and who are the main military obstacle – no fear of military action from Italy is felt – to the division of Roman Gaul between Visigoths and Burgundians.  The British had occupied the Loire before Euric ever went to war; and this agrees with the conclusions I had drawn from the Gregory passage, “a major and probably permanent operation”.  Jordanes is wrong.

On the other hand, there is no need to reject his testimony altogether.  He says two things: one, that Anthemius appealed to the British; two, that they came from the ocean in ships.  If Jordanes had by any chance misunderstood a notice that the British had come from the ocean in ships before Anthemius appealed to them, the sequence of events would be perfectly clear.  There had been British soldiers in Gaul, reinforcing the Romano-Gaulish territories still defying Visigothic expansion.  The army of Rigothamus has sometimes been understood as an army of exiles, driven out by the 442 war and settled in Armorica; but even if such an army was still battle-ready 26 years later - and what had they been doing in the meanwhile? - Jordanes tells us very clearly that the British "came from the ocean in ships", ueniens... oceano ex nauibus.  Can "came from the ocean" possibly mean sailing from Brittany... to the Loire?  (In Biturigas ciuitatem - to the region of Bourges.)  And with Roman roads still in place (the disasters of the fifth century are not understood unless we visualize the barbarian hordes merrily marching and plundering along beautiful, stout Roman roads), would such an expensive sailing even be necessary?  Of course not; and of course not.

What is more, Jordanes knows nothing of exiles in Armorica.  There is a long and ferocious battle, as certified by Gregory; the Visigoths win, and the remnants of Rigothamus' army withdraw... into the land of the Burgundi, who were then Roman allies.  We have already seen that Jordanes said in the clearest possible terms that he used only written sources - nos enim potius lectionis credimus quam fabulis anilis consentimus; therefore he must have had a written source for this, the more so since the note is nothing to do with Jordanes' main theme, adds nothing to his narrative, leads to no further development, and is in effect completely unnecessary.

The British exiles in Burgundy are never mentioned again; but a few years after the fact a group that sounds very much like them turns up in a letter of Sidonius Apollinaris to that other famous British exile, Faustus of Riez.  The latter had apparently written a book for their edification and sent it to them via a British monk and bishop, Riochatus, whom Sidonius, who had a good opinion of him (ille uenerabilis - "that venerable man"), describes as "twice an exile in this world" - by which he almost certainly means once as a monk in orders, and once as a Briton far from home.  There is no indication that this community, deserving the pastoral attention of Faustus and of what sounds like their own exiled British bishop, was anything but the one known to Jordanes.  An exiled community with its own bishop must have been quite large.  We are very far from Armorica: Sidonius lived in Clermont-Ferrand, and Faustus in the mountains of Provence, near Italy.

Between 452 and 468, something cataclysmic had happened.  In 452, a Gallic neighbour regarded Britain as stably in dicionem Saxonum; by 468, the Christian power in the island was strong enough to hold part of Gaul as well as Britain, and for word of it to have reached Anthemius in distant Ravenna.  Jordanes and Gregory both show that the wars of the British on the Loire were no common event; 12,000 men and a bishop do not argue a small commitment; even after they had been thoroughly routed, there still were enough of them to form a distinct community among the Burgundians.

This cataclysmic event can only have been the revolt of Ambrosius.  The death of his parents, and the sack and destruction of his estate, must have at first destroyed what standing he had.  But some time after 1 January 456, the process described by Gildas began to take place - the strengthening of the reliquiae, the flight of the ciues to Saxon-free areas.  That it took something like twenty or twenty-five years for the Mild King's son to be accepted as national war-leader may tell us something of the detestation that his father's memory still drew; and the killing of Vitalinus/Vortigern may have been not only an act of family revenge, but the disposal of a rival whose very presence prevented the gathering of British forces.  Geoffrey places the killing as the first of Ambrosius' deeds, and the lost Cath Gwaloph - if it referred to the same events - placed it in the time of Vitalinus' own reign.

The sudden apparition of Celtic names such as Rigothamus and Rigocatus strongly suggests that the armed forces of this new Christian power were of Celtic origin, and after all we have seen, I do not think we need hesitate in guessing at a Northern origin for them.  In point of fact, a fascinating complexs of linguistic evidence shows that there are reasons to suggest that Ambrosius or his supporters had aimed at least some of their propaganda to the northern tribes, aiming it against Vitalinus rather than the Saxons; and that the result was a significant change in political vocabulary.

The Vortigernid-Pascentiad storytellers attributed to Vortigern's legendary son a name which is not a personal name but a title: Vortimer, Vortamorix.  Vortamorix, we remember, is the figure who parallels the Iris hero Art mac Conn, through whom passes the legitimacy of the dynasty; Vortamorix must have the same function, and indeed he shows the imperial nature of a national and ever victorious leader.  I argued that O, the earliest version of his story, had been written down in Latin in the sixth century (by someone whose intellectual attainments were comparable to Gildas’), but that it had been attached to “Vortigern” from the store of interpretative stories of a class of Celtic storytellers bound to ancient traditions.

I have argued that O makes a deliberate effort to confiscate the theme of the great national revolt from Ambrosius, ascribing his great deeds and story features to Vortimer.  Not only is he responsible for the revolt against the Saxons, but he is ascribed the rebuilding of churches, and, like Ambrosius, dies of being poisoned by an evil Saxon at court (Ronwein in his case, Eopa in that of Ambrosius).  And his name represents a claim to the imperial title.  Vortamo-Rix means "highest king"; vortamo being the superlative of the prefix vor, and rix - as it still is in Taliesin, ri, plural rieu - the word for every kind of king, both teyrn and gwledig.  What this word means is, quite simply, king of kings: Emperor.  The Vortigernids of the sixth century saw themselves as the children not only of the Vor-tigernos, the over-successful kinglet, but of the Vortamo-Rix, the king above all kings: these are not personal names, but titles implying political claims.

The meaning of the name had already been forgotten by the time it passed into Welsh, since the final rix fell apart into a meaningless closing sound -yr (Gwerthevyr, Vortimer)[25].  Its significance is therefore archaic; and when we find it attached to the entirely legendary hero on whom the Vortigernids had fastened all their belief in themselves as the natural leaders of Britain, we are also entitled to suggest that his so-called name Vortamorix, “Highestking”, is part of it.  This title represented the self-image entertained in the court of Pascent's' descendants, propagated by their storytellers and bards, and which certainly had some relevance to their practical political activity.

That historical Wales had apparently forgotten the meaning of both Vertigernos and Vortamo-Rix is interesting in itself.  In one of the earliest known Welsh poems, Geraint Filius Erbin, the title of king of kings is Welshified as Ameraudur (applied to Arthur, with the added force of an internal rhyme Arthur... ameraudur).  That is, by then the word Imperator had taken the semantic space of Vortamo-rix even in the Celtic speech.  This explains why its native equivalent was distorted into the uncomprehending Gwerthevyr: already by the time that Geraint filius Erbin was written, it had been superseded by the more prestigious Latin word.

But there is evidence that Imperator entered the Celtic speech even before the phonetic changes that turned it into Welsh[26], and that ameraudur represents a re-entry at a later stage (in the same way that, in Italian and French, the Latin causa became, by natural phonetic evolution, cosa/chose, but was then re-introduced in its two technical meanings, "cause" [philosophical] and "lawsuit" [legal], to give modern Italian and French causa/cause).

Triadic tradition and hagiographic legend know one Emyr Llydaw.  Emyr, according to Rachel Bromwich, derives from Imperator, and the name therefore gives Imperator, (king) of Brittany (Llydaw).  This has gone through the same sound-change that turned Ambrosius into Emrys, and indeed there are a few points to suggest that the two are closely related.  Ambrosius came to Britain from Brittany, and we have seen that some manuscripts of Nennius, including the very early "Irish Nennius", call him Regem Francorum et Brittonum Aremoricorum, "King of the Franks and of the Britons of Armorica".  This is a mad claim, anachronistic twice over, since by Ambrosius' time the Franks had not yet conquered Gaul, much less tried it on with the Britons of Armorica; and the British themselves, in my view, had not yet settled in Armorica in numbers.  However, it shows that, centuries before Geoffrey, Ambrosius was strongly connected with Armorica.  The consonance between Emrys and Emyr suggests a connection, Welsh being a language of significant consonances.  It also reminds us that the creator of the legend of the House of Constantine knew that Ambrosius had an older brother, though he did not know his name.

Now if the Ambrosiads carried on their pretension to the Romano-British imperial throne in their Armorican exile, then it would be the heir - the older brother - who, after the Mild King's death at Saxon hands, would be regarded as Imperator in Letavia - which is at least assonant with Emyr Llydaw.  Also, there is something about the faded quality and evidently isolated nature of this impressive-sounding personage, who turns up in a few notable places but of whom we know nothing, that reminds us of the fading from memory of the Ambrosiad house (except for Ambrosius himself) to the point where, already by the 630s, the author of N had no idea whatever of their actual pedigree.  The author of N was a contemporary of St.Beuno, the reorganizer of the North Welsh church, and St.Beuno's new structure seems to have been imposed over a fifth-century one set up by a wave of churchmen two of whom, Derfel and Cadfan, were said to be grandchildren of Emyr Llydaw.  This reminds us of Ambrosius' reorganization of the British church at his great parliament, and considering that the hagiography itself does not seem to show any knowledge of Brenhin Emrys, it is at least significant that these ecclesiastics are associated with the fifth century and with Brittany: we seem to see, here, a fragment of the fifth-century Ambrosian re-establishment of Romano-British institutions, with its context forgotten, preserved in amber at the edges of a later structure.

The important point, however, is that Imperator became not Ameraudur, but Emyr; that is, that it entered Celtic speech ahead of the sound-changes that turned Old Celtic into Welsh.  This puts it closer in time to Ambrosius' revolt, and, more to the point, before the sound-change that lost at once the form and the point of Vortamo-Rix (and, by the way, it agrees with the fifth-century dating of Cadfan's group of church founders).

What we find, therefore, is an evident native imperial title ("the highest, vortamo, in the whole class of kings") displaced to the point where its sound is changed in a way that obliterates its meaning; except in the interpretative legends of a dispossessed dynasty, where it becomes the name of the wholly legendary hero who represents their enduring imperial memory/claim.  We remember that the Vortigernid author of N, creator of the noble Archbishop Guithelinus, still remembered, in the 630s, that Vortigern’s real name had been Gwythelyn, if not Vitalinus; while the rest of Britain and Brittany, including the Vortigern cult in Quimperlé, had forgotten any name but Vortigern.  In other words, the clinging to names with ideological meanings - and the rejection of competing names with competing ideological meanings - was a common instrument of ideological warfare, well understood by Vortigernid circles.  Vortigernid-Pascentiad circles held on to the word Vortamo-rix and to its meaning, to the point where sixth-century Pascentiads invested it with the narrative and emotional content of their claim to the throne - while we find the Latin term, Emyr, Imperator, entering the language, and probably dominating it.

Let us not forget that the concept of Emperor or king of kings, of world-governor, was not a theoretical or fabulous one to contemporary Romans and Celts: it embodied the reality of the only State of their common historical background and their natural idea of government.  Even if we assume that no effective imperial government was in place in their time, political ideas change too slowly for this to have become obsolete.

Vortamo-rix is not the only word that receives a personality and a legend in support of dynastic claims:  Emyr, Imperator, is also applied to a definite, possibly legendary figure who is said to rule the very region[27] from which the hero Ambrosius, a second son, came to free Britain - and incidentally to kill the father of the Vortamo-Rix.

It is not hard to see why both the title of Vortamo-Rix and that of Emyr Llydaw (Imperator Letaviae) ended up turning into individual heroes.  The title of supreme sovereign, emperor, king of kings, shah-in-shah, cakravartin, is by nature unique and indivisible; and therefore it lends itself to being individualized to the point of identification.  In most of our history, the identification has been from real individuals - Caesar, Augustus, Charles the Great (from whom comes the Lithuanian for "King", Karalius) - to rank, but there is no reason why the opposite should not be the case; and in a system in which even the large class of kinglets or teyrnedd had their individualization in Beli son of Manogan, to individualize the concept of the individual, unique rank of emperor would not even be a long step.

We also find that the father of the Vortamo-Rix is given another Old Celtic name, which - reversing the linguistic royal progress of the conquering word Imperator from Latin into Old Celtic - is imported into the Latin accounts of his life and death, and thence into Welsh, Old English and the Old French of the Arthurian romances, obliterating his actual Latin name altogether.  Both elements of this nickname modify those of the Vortamo-Rix in a reductive sense, vor reducing the prefix from the superlative to the standard grade, and tigernos reducing his royalty to its lowest grade.  If, therefore, we assume that Vortamo-Rix was the British Celtic word for the king of kings, then Vor-tigernos must be a caricature of the title.  And if we assume that the still-reigning emperor Vitalinus was in fact known by this title among his Celtic subjects in the North, then this means that sticking him with the insult vor-tigernos must have been part of the propaganda of a rival party.  It implies the racist views of the northern tribes’ own legends, A, which we have seen had a long prehistory, and which stated that Britain was a land for Britons to live in, but for Romans to rule.  It follows that the proper sovereign is Imperator, not Vortamo-rix; indeed, there can be no Vortamo-rix, but only a Ver-tigernos, because only under-kings, tigerni, would use Celtic rather than Latin.  The Vertigernos, to his enemies, was the sort of person to be described not in Latin but in Celtic.

The insulting nickname had early and universal success.  Gildas latinized it as superbus tyrannus, and it crossed the sea to establish itself in the earliest layers of Irish ecclesiastical legend as a typical "British" name (though it is also in Ireland that we find an ogham featuring a "son of Vitalinus").  I think that we have to see Vortigern as established in Gildasian culture from the beginning - and by "beginning", I mean a period so early that the language it developed had become formulaic by Gildas' time, and he could speak of the superbus tyrannus without fear of being misunderstood.

To sum up: the extreme, pre-Gildasian antiquity of the ideas embodied in Vortamo-Rix and Vor-tigernos is shown not only by Gildas' use of one of them as a formula, but also by their form.  They are not proto-Welsh, but Old Celtic, and evolution of one of them into Welsh modified it right out of any recognizable meaning.  Linguistically, therefore, the Ambrosian claim seems to impinge on Old Celtic by introducing the Latin word Imperator to signify true monarchy.  This implies that true monarchy can only be expressed by a Latin word; and reducing a vortamo-rix to a ver-tigernos seems to imply that Roman titles carry a natural supremacy over British, the latter amounting to no more than teyrnedd, under-kings.

Now, the fact that the paradigmatic wearer of the title, "the" Imperator par excellence, is The Emperor in Letavia, would be hard to explain - Armorica is not exactly closely identified with mighty imperial sovereigns or with the height of Roman glory - were it not that legend closely associated Ambrosius with it from a very early period (while Vitalinus/Vortigern had nothing to do with it); and this means that, even if we refuse to identify the character called Emyr with a suppositious older brother of his, it inevitably leads the concept embodied in the name Emyr back to the house of the Mild King and Emrys Gwledig[28].  I think it would be harder to suggest a separate explanation for these various data, than to say that they come together to explain each other.

That the original process took place in Old Celtic - already a literary rather than a spoken language by the time Ambrosius started his war - shows that this propaganda was addressed not to popular strata, but, as you might expect, to the influential, opinion-forming tribal upper classes, with particular reference to bards and storytellers.  It clearly depends on the racist ideology I explored in Gildas: hence Vitalinus (of whom we have no reason to believe that he was less Roman than his rival) is attacked - slandered, if you accept the racist premise - as a jumped-up British teyrn.  It is possible that even the use of the preposition vor- before tigernos was sarcastic, like saying "the High Prole" or "the Exalted Hoi Polloi".  The Celtic mind was naturally hierarchical, and would find nothing strange about one nation ranking higher than another; and we strongly suspect, as we have seen in analyzing A, that all or most of the royal houses of the border tribes were of Roman descent and had made this part of their ideology.  The partisans of Ambrosius worked on established and basic attitudes, as indeed did Gildas a century later.

We may also suggest that their insistence on the Latin title had a double edge: while it called on established, Celtic North British race and caste attitudes, it also expressed that desire to re-establish a properly Roman order and law.  This is what we found in the British leaders met by Sidonius Apollinaris, King Rigothamus and Bishop Rigocatus.  Both have Celtic names and Roman manners and concerns.  Rigotamus’ name means "most royal", but he has enough Roman education and manners to deserve the respect of such a very Roman and very learned man as Sidonius; Rigocatus (“king of battle”) is “that venerable man”, a monk-bishop for whose character and mission Sidonius has nothing but good to say.  And we think of the Ambrosius of Geoffrey 8.9, restoring ancient laws and ruling (like the national leadership of Britain before the revolt, according to E.A. Thompson's penetrating analysis of Constantius) from London, the city called Augusta.

The further back we go, the more certain we can be that British culture worked in Latin, and that Celtic - whether Old Celtic or demotic proto-Welsh - was restricted, as a language of government and culture, to the northern tribes.  What I am suggesting, then, is that the propaganda of Ambrosius had two prongs: a Latin one, found in the Gildasian vir modestus, the Galfridian hero who "was moderate in all things"; and an over-Wall Celtic one, which mocked the native imperial title of Vitalinus - Vortamo-Rix - by reducing it to Vor-Tigernos.  I think that the insult *vertigernos was created among or for the northern tribes from which so much of Gildasian culture comes, as a native-language, one-word explanation of Ambrosius' revolt.  To say that Vitalinus was not a supreme king or emperor, but merely a vertigernos, an upper kinglet, would explain in one word the reason why Ambrosius, of the true imperial blood, was right to kill him.

The stress, that is, is not even on the Saxons: it is that the illegitimacy of a jumped-up lesser lord claiming the crown justifies killing him.  This is actually the emphasis we find in the earliest layer of material, that of O, N1, and to some extent Gildas; and while the Saxons grew in importance as time went on, the concern with Vitalinus/Vortigern's legitimacy never went away.  It follows that anyone who took a loyal view of things in the wake of Ambrosius' victories would call the usurper Vortigern - the Vortigern - just as any good law-abiding Briton, in the wake of that inglorious usurpation known as the Glorious Revolution, would refer to the rightful kings as the Old Pretender and the Young Pretender.  There is an etiquette in the use of language to justify revolutions or usurpations[29].

Certainly the tribes went to war for Ambrosius.  By 468, he or a successor had no less than 12,000 men to spare for the defence of Gaul.  Where else, except in the north, could Britain have found so many Catholic swordsmen (part of the issue of the war of the Loire was the heresy of the Visigoths) ready to go fighting abroad on a long-term, maybe permanent basis? Rigothamus' soldiers were Catholic and could be relied upon to be willing to fight Germanic barbarians (though the Visigoths won their battle, they seem to have had a devil of a time doing so); they were also, as we will see, undisciplined and disrespectful or ignorant of Roman law.  With the possible exception of Patrician Ireland, where tribes may have by then been converted in numbers, there is no other area in Britain or the rest of the empire that can be imagined as being able to spare so much manpower in exchange for Roman gold and Catholic glory.

This seems to me the commonsense explanation of the written evidence: Gallic chronicle, Jordanes, St.Gregory of Tours, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and St.Gildas.  We have had to reconsider a couple of items - Zosimus 6.5 and the Letter to Agitius - but on the whole, written evidence has proved out best friend.  Much unnecessary fuss is caused by admitting unnecessary hypotheses, such as the existence of a major British colony in Armorica at too early a date, or by not tying together the various documents and considering each in isolation.  But the keystone of this interpretation is Gildas.  However brief and impressionistic, his description is precise.  He admits that the Saxons "went back home" after satisfying their fury; that is, they put an end to the war on terms agreeable to themselves, and withdrew to areas of the island so thoroughly settled as to be regarded as their home.  He admits that it was "some time" before the remnants of the British body politic gathered around Ambrosius.  Therefore, for that period the Saxons exerted some sort of supreme power over the former Roman Britain.  The dates supplied by the Gaulish Chronicler and by Jordanes complete the picture, and incidentally usefully inform us of what time frame Gildas meant by tempore... interueniente aliquanto, "some time coming between": he meant something like twenty or more years, 442 to some time between 456 and 468.  (We remember that he said that the Saxons had lived in peace with the British multo tempore, for much time, as long as their annona was paid.  That cannot have been more than ten years.)

These things are admitted, in spite of their distasteful nature, because they form the background to the eventual triumph of Ambrosius; but they also correspond with the few data registered elsewhere, and shed light on them.  Gildas, therefore, had a fairly precise narrative - though not chronological - idea of events between 441 and 468; an idea whose precision cannot be the result of oral tradition, but must depend on written accounts, since they took place upwards of fifty years before he was born.  As we have already seen that Gildas had written evidence for every major event in Britain between independence and the beginning of the Saxon war, there is nothing particularly surprising about this.

(A suggestion. Is there any reason not to think that the dispatch and loss of Rigothamus and 12,000 good men to the Continent may have prolonged or renewed the war in Britain? There is something about it of the overconfidence of unexpected, total success. Ambrosius, or his successors, feeling sure of Britain, imagined that he/they could turn the tide in Gaul as well. Ambrosius, who had grown up in exile in Armorica, might have had a direct interest, or at least a sentimental concern, in saving northern Gaul from the barbarians. This cannot be proven, but it is interesting that the Visigothic invasion was, according to Gregory and the Pseudo-Fredegarius, supported by a seaborne Saxon army who seized the islets at the mouth of the Loire and, even after the defeat of Odoacer and the Visigoths, needed much more fighting to be dislodged. A fleet of Saxons might have come from Britain to help the Visigoths on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend. Even if war had not already been renewed, it seems quite possible that the disaster of Bourg-de-Deols might have weakened the British and fatally encouraged the Saxons, leading to fresh hostilities at home. Anthemius was under the impression that the British had won decisively enough to be able to come to the rescue of beleaguered Gaul; and yet we hear that the next half-century is a time of war and constant danger, in which, according to Gildas, the British were defeated more than once - ex eo tempore, nunc ciues, nunc hostes uincebant; "from that time on, now the British won, now the enemy".  What had stopped that first British victory from being as decisive and final as Anthemius believed?).


[1]The apparent loss of all the generations of the Vitalini before Vortigern's grandfather may mean that there was no pedigree to be preserved; and the fact that Vitalinus seems to have been enthroned out of dissatisfaction with the Mild King's weak and fussy foreign policies, and in the name of a return to a more energetic, military posture, suggests a fighting man. In the later Roman empire, such enthroned generals, from Maximinus the Thracian to Diocletian, tended to have risen through the ranks, even from the lowest social origins; as, according to Orosius, had Constantine III. Vitalinus must also have been quite young, to be enthroned in 427-8 and live to be killed by Ambrosius some time between 452 and 468. But these are such scanty whispers of evidence that nothing can be built on them; I only speak of them because they seem to agree with the Gildasian-age emphasis on the social and ethnic inferiority of Vortigern.

[2]SNYDER op.cit.. p.342 (n.81), quoting H.R.HURST, Gloucester: the Roman and later defences, Gloucester 1986, 123f.; S.BASSETT, Churches in Worcester before and after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, in Antiquarians Journal 69, 243; and J.S.WACHER, Late Roman Developments, in Studies in the archaeology and history of Cirencester, Oxford 1976, p.15.

[3]The author has done his National Service in close proximity to our Alpini, and remembers that gallant body and its stone-faced but fair officers with rueful affection.

[4]BYRNE op.cit.184-192.


[6]It is even possible that the fact that no history can be recovered from the legends of the so-called pre-Patrician saints of southern Ireland, Ailbe of Emly, Ciaran of Saigir, Declan of Ardmore, and Ibar, may be less than casual: perhaps these bishops and priests had a schismatic and heretical past which it was found convenient to delete - leaving a great founding name and a void, which legend took care to fill. See Appendix XI.

[7]MOLLIE MILLER, op.cit., points out that the genealogy of Strathclyde makes Coroticus - Ceredig wledig - the father of one Cynwyd; and that this is in fact a place-name, found all over Britain - river Kennet, villages East and West Kennet, village Kentbury, Cound Brook, Condover, etc. etc. - and in particular is the name of the Cynwydyon war-band, one of three institutionalized war-bands in the British old north, famous in song and story. She concludes that Coroticus/ Ceredig was probably regarded as the founder of the war-band, that the war-band regarded itself as deriving its actual and legal existence and esprit de corps from him; and it follows that Coroticus may have put the practices of northern war-bands on a legal footing in his territory. He cannot have done that without the knowledge and consent of the Romano-British government.

[8]JOHN NEWMAN, The late Roman and early Saxon settlement patterns in the Sandings of Suffolk, in MARTIN CARVER (ed.), The age of Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge 1992.

[9]It is also possible that this may be due to what seems to have been a succession of violent political changes in East Anglia: as we will see in the next few chapters, there is reason to believe that the “native” dynasty of Icel was displaced by intruders from Scandinavia, who were in turn overthrown by a possibly native but certainly intrusive group, which does not show too many signs of inner stability either. This sequence of revolts would no doubt imply a sequence of redistributions of land which might severely affect land patterns. On the other hand, the fact that the new Saxon settlement of Norwich was placed near, but clearly and deliberately outside, the ruins of Caistor – unlike the kings who settled in Roman towns such as Canterbury or Winchester – seems to show an aversion to the very site of Roman towns: the conquerors wanted the strategic advantage of the site so well selected by the Romans astride road and river communications, but they would not at any price take over the walls and houses of their enemies’ ruined centre.

[10]More than a century later, the Longobards broke into Italy from the wild Pannonian plain. Finding the country dotted with stone-built cities, they happily took them over, taking to city living like ducks to water; but they deliberately destroyed a certain number, in particular Oderzo, Padova and Cremona. Italian historians have long presented these as acts of barbarous savagery, but it is quite clear that it amounted to a deliberate political decision aimed against the Greek empire. Savage political measures do not mean mindless attitudes: deliberate devastation was, in antiquity, a part of politics - extreme, but not unknown. Read what Alexander of Macedon did to Tyre, though his intention was not to annihilate but to replace the great empire he was conquering.

[11]“It is sometimes said that Aetius became consul a fourth time in 454, but according to the Fasti Romani consulares printed in Amsterdam in 1705 by Almaloveen and quoted in Ainsworth’s Latin dictionary, it was his son who was consul then. The entry is: 454, Fl.Aetius Aetio Fil. The entries in Monumenta Germaniae historica 40, Chronica minora 1, are: 432, Aetio et Valerio; 437, Aetio II et Sigisvulto; 446, Aetio III et Symmaco; 454, Aetio et Studio. The Roman numerals denote second and following consulships; I is never used.” M.B.WALKER, The Deil’s Dyke and Gildas Sapiens, Newton-Stewart 1967, p.25.

[12]Michael Winterbottom speaks with feeling of the "weird contrast" felt by his educated Latinist's ear between the quotation from the Letter to Agidius and "its baroque surroundings"; WINTERBOTTOM, Gildas op.cit. (introduction), 8. But in terms of invention and artistic success, one could hardly ask for a more uninspired image than "the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians" - to which the answer comes natural, "have you no ships?" - or for a drearier repetition than "between these two kinds of death we either have our throats cut or are drowned". They manage to reduce admittedly dreadful events to a stupid schoolroom misapplication of textbook rhetorical tricks, with absolutely no emotional impact, repeating the same statement - "they're killing us and we can't get away from them" - over and over again to no effect; and what is "weird" is to see such a specimen of late-classical dullardhood, with every spark of invention drowned in the damp mud of rhetorical formulae, turn up among the marvellous Latin, superlative invention and blazing emotion of Saint Gildas. Nothing could so plainly show what a difference the Saint could have made to Latin prose, had his manner caught: he might have saved Latin. And supposing that Aetius could be swayed by rhetoric, one might say: no wonder he wasn’t!

[13]On the other hand, if a good deal of Britain remained beyond Saxon control, the cold-blooded political calculation in question may have been wrong.It is possible that, if Aetius had entered Britain, the Saxons might have been overwhelmed and conquered or driven out; and then the land would have been conquered neither by resurgent Celts nor by English barbarians. On such narrow events can hang thousands of years of futurity, including the rise of the modern international language, the "next Latin" - English.

[14]Priscus, Fragment 8, in C.MÜLLER, Fragmenta historicorum graecorum, IV 90; C.H.STEVENS, English historical review 56 (1941), 263. It is perhaps not entirely irrelevant that Geoffrey of Monmouth makes the Picts and the Huns, rather than the Saxons or the Scots, Britain’s chief enemies in the obscure period between the fall of Gratianus and the arrival of Constantine II.  The date is of course much too early for the historical Attila; but it might reflect some early notice which made the Huns, rather than the Saxons, the other term of the aggression against Britain. That is, some early notice from before the fall of Attila may have described the Saxons as “Huns” because, like other Germans, they were under Hunnish overlordship, and associated these “Huns” with the Picts (excluding, interestingly, the Irish). As Geoffrey had a traditional date for the arrival of “Hengist”, after which “his” Saxons would naturally remain the greatest and most noticeable of barbarian threats, he would have concluded that this notice must relate to an earlier period and attributed it to the only other period of complete barbarian ascendancy he had read of – that of A’s Third Pictish Invasion. Incidentally, if that is the case, it means that this presumable notice must have described the Huns as making the island’s inhabitants’ lives a misery along with the Picts; which is roughly the picture of Sidonius’ Panegyric to Avitus in late 455, except that he describes the enemy as Saxons. By then Attila had been dead two years, and whatever allegiance the Saxons of Britain may have had to the Huns had dissolved. It is the height of misfortune that not enough of the Letter to Agitius has survived to know of what “barbarians”, exactly, its authors were complaining.

[15]This has been pointed out as far as the Saxons of the 470s, whom Namatius is to fight, are concerned, and it is quite right; but if, as I believe, Sidonius was drawing on his memories of the raids of 455 to describe the perils Namatius must face now, then it seems more than likely that he was describing British Saxons then as well.

[16]See Appendix III, below.

[17]SNYDER op.cit. 146-48 and notes and authorities therein cited.

[18]The age of Arthur, 94

[19]Those same South Saxons seem to have laid a claim to Offa/Uffi, ancestral hero of the English, as early as the first decade of the eighth century. This version of Offa has none of the family connections of the Offa of the Mercian pedigree, of Beowulf, Saxo Grammaticus and a few other sources; on the other hand, he is the father of the eighth term of the dynasty, Aescwine, which, according to Anglo-Saxon genealogical usage - Anglo-Saxon genealogy is a highly stylized and artificial form, less open to real history than the Celtic kinds - must be the founder of the kingdom. This places the Sussex Offa in a decisive place, suitable for a heroic figure, as father of the first king of Sussex, and reminds us of the Mercian Offa's role as defender of the Angles in Denmark and close ancestor of the first English king in Britain, Icel; and as there is no other famous Offa/Uffi in either English or Danish heroic traditions, it is difficult to imagine where else the lords of Sussex might have got the name and idea of a heroic Offa in their last continental generation and just before their settlement in Britain. Like the Kentish, the South Saxons were a minor parvenu dynasty in search of English legitimacy, but without the fortunate resource of a mighty cathedral school.

[20]On the other hand, a historical Aelle could have been called "king of the South Saxons", that is of the southern part of whatever English settlement existed in his time, long before any such place-name as Sussex existed. These "south Saxons" would probably be those of East Anglia, a large and fertile area that was English practically from the beginning, or possibly Kent.

[21]The verb confugio means to seek refuge with someone or in a protected place. Once again, we notice Gildas' remarkable precision of language: the miserrimi ciues do not merely fugiunt - flee, with a connotation of despair and aimlessness, merely dodging danger for a time - but confugiunt, flee to a definite person or place of refuge. Every word of Gildas' must be taken to be used in its full and detailed Latin vocabulary sense.

[22]Notice the image of Victory "yelding" - cessit, from cedo - like a lady to a favoured suitor.  Whether this comes ultimately from classical Latin imagery or from the Celtic imagination, I think that Gildas, here, was unconsciously half-way to paganism, imagining Victory as a subordinate power under God, capable of “yelding” or otherwise.

[23]JORDANES, Getica, XLV 237

[24] really cannot imagine what leads some historians to deny factual accuracy to statements of this kind. If Jordanes - whose sources, let me insist, were all written and often official; he despised fabulae - had ascribed Rigothamus an army of 120,000 or 1,200,000, there might be reason to doubt; but what earthly reason is there why a victorious Catholic pretender Emperor from Roman Britain should not be able to spare 12,000 men for the rescue of the Empire of the West - and to his obvious strategic advantage? Well, then!

[25]Though the root of the first part of the name is still perceptible - Welsh gwarthaf.

[26]As we will see when we come to discuss the place of (Inscriptional) Old Celtic in early British history, there are reasons to believe that a demotic proto-Welsh, already featuring at least some of these sound-changes, was spoken among the common people of the North and that Old Celtic was restricted to the educated classes, by the sixth century. This, however, makes no difference to my argument: if the word Imperator was received into Old Celtic with the sound-changes appropriate to that particular literary language, it would then have been subjected to the further sound-changes consistently suffered by Old Celtic words passing into the demotic.

[27]In Welsh, the form Name+Region means "Name lord of Region", as in Clydno Eidyn "Clydno of Edinburgh", Maelgwn Gwynedd "Maelgwn of Gwynedd", etc.; therefore, Emyr Llydaw= Imperator king of Brittany.

[28]And as the house of Ambrosius itself vanishes from history in the storms of the late sixth century, the word Emyr is itself reduced to an obsolete, meaningless hero's name, just like Gwerthefyr/Vortipor; and the Latin word for "king of kings" re-enters the language as Ameraudur, attached this time - as it will be for centuries to come - to the new hero who expresses the fullness of warrior lordship over Britain and against the Saxons.

[29]The apparent insistence on the illegitimacy and inferior blood of Vitalinus might also suggest that the Northern tribes had not greatly felt or greatly minded the Saxon revolt, so that they had to be worked up by assaults on the usurper’s character rather than on the barbarians. But this is not a necessary inference. It is likelier that Ambrosius' propaganda attacked both Vitalinus' legitimacy and his surrender to the Saxons, and that we only happen to have one end. A, after all, was the product of a group of military societies proud of their role as liberators of Britain (from the Picts) and we have seen reason to suspect that it might have been composed in part to foreshadow the war against another pagan enemy; it does, however, seem to be later than the age of Ambrosius, Rigothamus and Rigocatus, with their still-living loyalty to a Roman ideal and identity.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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