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

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Chapter 8.6: The British invasion of Gaul and the origins of Brittany

Fabio P. Barbieri

The biggest piece of evidence for a British invasion of Gaul is of course Brittany itself - the existence of a Celtic nation that clearly came into being some time between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the life of Gregory of Tours.  There is Zosimus, with his capital misunderstanding, to show us that this resulted from an anti-Roman movement that began in the island of Britain; Procopius, to show that in the 530s-540s the British had a mighty and royal role throughout Gaul, figuring in Frankish lies as royal partners.  And we have the historian of the Gaulish sixth century, Gregory of Tours, to tell us… nothing.  Nothing; a most important piece of evidence.

Gregory of Tours, as we have seen keeps a total and unnatural silence about anything to do with Britain; even though one piece of evidence - his knowledge of the Gospel of Nicodemus - hints that he had contact with British ecclesiastics.  But that is not the only area on which the bishop keeps silence, where he should speak; not by a long chalk.  When we examine his third book, concerned with the period in question, we find that this bishop of Tours has nothing whatsoever to say about the history of Tours, his own see.  Indeed, he is just as silent about every other area north of Clermont-Ferrand and west of Paris.  Book 3 covers over 20 years, and for all this period Gregory can find nothing whatever worth writing down about events in his own region.

To put this silence in context: in the same period Gregory describes Chlochilaicus’ raid on Frisia; Frankish wars in Thuringia and Burgundy; the assassination of a Thuringian king in Zülpich (west Rhineland); a disastrous revolt against the Franks in Clermont-Ferrand and Auvergne; the Frankish king Childebert’s invasion of Spain; another war in Burgundy including a siege of Autun; the flight of Arcadius (the man who had caused the revolt of Auvergne) to Bourges (held, Gregory mentions, by Childebert) and the revenge taken on his family in Cahors; the revolt of Munderic in the Champagne and his murder in Vitry-le-Brulé; the flight of a slave from Trier to Langres (both under Frankish control, it is implied); the murder of two royal princes in Paris; a royal marriage with the Longobards (then settled in Pannonia); Rodez and Béziers re-taken from the Visigoths; the flight of a noble Frank to Arles (held by the Ostrogoths but threatened by the Franks) and then to Italy; a murder in the harem of a Frankish king in Verdun; the attempt by the Frankish kings Theudebert and Childebert to eliminate their brother and uncle Lothar – from which he was saved only by a miracle; another invasion of Spain during which Saragossa is besieged and a number of lesser places taken; a wergild taken from the Ostrogoths in Italy out of which Lothar is cheated; royal action by Theudebert to restore the city of Verdun; a vicious feud between Franks in the Dijon area; and a riot in Trier against a tax collector.  The Franks are present and active on both sides of the Rhine, in Frisia, Thuringia, Zülpich and Trier; in Lorraine and Champagne, in Verdun and Vitry; in Paris and on the banks of the Seine; in Bourges; in Langres, Dijon and their environs; in Clermont-Ferrand and Auvergne (where they put down a serious revolt); in the Rhone valley almost as far as Arles; in Aquitaine and Provence as far as Rodez and Béziers; they invade Burgundy, Thuringia, Spain as far as the Ebro, and Italy as far as Pavia; and they contract an important royal marriage with a princess from the Danube valley.  In all this period, a period spanning over twenty years, nothing whatever is said of events on the Atlantic shore (whatever happened to Bordeax, let alone Nantes?), in Brittany, the Loire valley, and western Normandy.  Above all, nothing is said about events in Tours itself.

With the exception of a few ill-established and fragmentary Saint’s lives - of which the Life of St. Geneveieve of Paris is by far the most important - Gregory of Tours is literally our only source for Gaulish history at this time; if he does not say it, it does not get said, and that is that[1].  And it should by now be clear that he has left enough space in the history of Gaul before 544 to accommodate a whole epic of Arthur or any other conqueror.  In the same period, Gregory’s book contains another sly little silence that seems symptomatic of what is happening here.  We know that at the battle of Vouillé, Clovis, the first Frankish king, drove the Visigoths out of Gaul as far as the Pyrenees; but we know nothing of what seems to have been a remarkable Gothic reaction in the following decade – until we find, about 525-530, that the Goths have got as far as Rodez, and that it takes a combined operation from two Frankish kings (the Franks had the bad habit of dividing the kingdom between royal heirs) to roll them back again.  The position of Rodez means that the Visigoths must have reconquered more than half of Aquitaine, but Gregory only mentions it to describe the further Frankish victories that pushed the Goths back again.  Now, suppose that, in a similar situation, he had in fact no Frankish victories to report: is it not to be suspected that he might not say anything at all[2]?

The clincher is the account of the succeeding bishops of Tours, placed not in the second or third book, but at the end of the history, in the tenth.  It includes a few contradictions with his other stories, and tells us not one, but a whole series of interesting tales.  Before the Franks came, the Visigoths dragged two successive Bishops, Volusianus, enthroned in 491, and Verus, who succeeded him in 498, to their own capital Toulouse.  This was the treatment they had inflicted twenty years earlier, as soon as they had conquered the Auvergne, to the aged Sidonius Apollinaris, who had led Roman resistance against them.  In other words, they treated Volusianus and Verus as possible or actual leaders of Roman resistance in newly conquered territory.  Were it not for this item, we would never know that the Goths had got as far as Tours.  Here are two important hints: first, here as in the case of the Visigothic re-conquest of Aquitaine, Gregory, or perhaps his source, is apt not to mention unpleasant facts; second, he is truthful in the matter of the succession of bishops in Tours, and facts left unmentioned elsewhere may be recovered from his episcopal list in 10.31.

After the Frankish conquest, which took place under Bishop Licinius (508-520), whom we have already met, Gregory is generally quite careful to mention who nominated the bishops, and why.  Clovis’ pious widow Chlothilde nominated Licinius’ successors, Theodorus and Proculus, in an extraordinary double episcopate.  These men were already consecrated bishops and had been driven out of Burgundy, an Arian kingdom.  Chlothilde was a power in the land at this time; according to Gregory, she brought her sons together against the Burgundians, and her nomination of the two exiled bishops must be connected.  The two bishops were old men and only lasted one year, after which (521) Chlothilde nominated Dinifius, another Burgundian exile, who lasted even less.  (The sequence of Chlothilde’s Burgundian bishops is so obscure that Gregory contradicts himself between Book 3 and Book 10, and his modern editor is not much the wiser.)  Then Chlodomer, one of Chlothilde’s royal sons (who died in the Burgundian campaign she had inspired), nominated Ommatius, a local nobleman of very high rank, who reigned for three years (522-525).

At this point, silence falls.  Three bishops, Leo (seven months of 526), Francilio (527-529) and Iniuriosus (529-546), succeed each other with nobody to tell us who nominated them, or why.  We remember that, according to Geoffrey’s chronology, Arthur’s wars in Scandinavia and Gaul began about 528.  Gregory tells us most about the least important of them, Leo, and his description of him focuses on such earth-shattering facts as that he was a clever wood-worker some of whose carved pieces were still in the Cathedral in Gregory’s own time.  Francilio, a nobleman of senatorial family, dies by poison in the interesting date 529, at Christmas, and Gregory – not as a rule slow to apportion blame – absolutely refuses to tell us who was suspected of the crime.  (Was it perhaps that somebody suspected the loyalty of a bishop with Frank- in his name?)[3]

Then we have Iniuriosus, who reigned for no less than seventeen years.  Gregory does not tell who nominated him or whose interests he served.  If it wasn’t a Frankish king who nominated him, and if it wasn’t a Frankish king who murdered his predecessor – then who did?  Remember that this is the period in which a Frankish pseudo-legend reported by Procopius suggests that the so-called Arborychi shared the sovereignty of Gaul and its Catholic defence with the Franks.  If the Franks had lost Tours to someone, it could not be the Visigoths, who by then were confined by the Pyrenees; but a people identified with Armorica - whose capital Tours was - must be a prime candidate.

Our first (and last) glimpse of Iniuriosus as a person is in 544; fifteen years, mind you, after his nomination.  At this point, Chlothilde is in Tours; no longer the powerful widow of the 520s, gathering her royal sons to send them to war, but a mere shadow of the great age of Clovis – now more than thirty years in the past –old, defeated and shortly to die.  She has seen her favourite grandchildren butchered almost before her eyes by two of her own sons, and it is a terrible and telling fact that the king who is with her and who is in charge of that particular part of Gaul, Lothar (or Chlothochar), was the guiding spirit among the murderers.

Lothar is now the power in the land; but not, it seems, power enough to challenge Iniuriosus.  The king has imposed a massive tax on the Church – one third of income - apparently with no problem from any other bishop.  Iniuriosus, however, flatly refuses to pay, and he does so in public and in the kind of language that Merovingian-age bishops simply did not use to their kings, didactic, tart, and uncompromising.  And far from reacting as every other chapter in Gregory’s book (in which people who get in the way of Merovingian kings do not have long and happy lives) would make us believe, Lothar apologizes in the humblest terms[4].  What on Earth is going on here?

Iniuriosus certainly could afford to pay.  When he was kind enough to die, two years later, his successor found the enormous sum of more than 20,000 gold solidi in the diocesan treasury; and the bishop had founded, apparently on his own initiative and with his own resources, two villages, and built two churches[5].  To give an idea, a grant-in-aid of 7,000 gold solidi, properly distributed by a conscientious bishop in a sort of mini-Marshall Plan, had been enough to move the city and district of Verdun from famine to prosperity[6]; and when the emperor Mauricius wanted the Franks to go to war against the Longobards in Italy, he paid 50,000 gold solidi[7]: the price of a war, the most expensive of all the enterprises of a government.  Iniuriosus was almost literally as rich as a king.

Just as interesting is what happened when he did Lothar the favour of dying.  The king replaced him with the first Frank ever to hold office in Tours; and not just any Frank, but his own referendarius (minister) Baudinus.  There is no mention of any assent by the Tours populace, let alone an election such as still often took place elsewhere.  Baudinus promptly demolished the diocesan treasury of his predecessor, distributing the “more than 20,000 gold solidi” to the poor.  Most Christian, no doubt, but was there any need for it?  If 7,000 gold solidi were enough to resurrect the shattered economy of the diocese of Verdun, did the poor of Tours really need this inflationary gift of 20,000?  What leaps to the mind is that there is king Lothar’s minister, intruded by royal order into a see that had never received a royal official or a Frank before, demolishing the diocesan treasury of his predecessor – the predecessor whose power had enabled him to reproach Lothar without fear and without consequences.  When Baudinus died (552), Lothar replaced him – again off his own bat – by another high official and another Frank, Gunthar, a trusted ambassador[8].

Gunthar only lived three years, and proved a severe and probably very damaging disappointment.  Gregory was a young man in his time, and his testimony is surely eyewitness material: Gunthar “became almost half-witted… he was unable to recognize guests he knew very well, and would assail them with insults and abuse”.  When he died, “the bishopric remained vacant for a whole year”; clearly, Lothar’s plans had been upset by the senility and early death of his trusted ambassador, and he could not find a man of similar reliability and prestige to hold Tours for him.

Lothar then seems to have changed tack: his next nominee was not a minister but an outstanding churchman, and not a Frank but a Roman, the presbyter Cato.[9]  The people of Tours were busy, at the same time, selecting a candidate of their own.  Lothar would have nothing to do with him, refusing even to hear his name; only when Cato disqualified himself by asking for the see of Clermont-Ferrand (which was held by a quite unsuitable incumbent) instead, did the king even try to find out who he was.  He was told that it was the well-born Eufronius, a cousin of Gregory himself, and answered resignedly: “That is one of the noblest and most ancient families in the kingdom; let God’s will and the will of St.Martin be done”.  You can almost see the Gallic shrug[10].

Gregory says nothing about the reasons for the behaviour of any of the participants in this drama, but their actions speak for themselves.  Lothar refusing to even listen to the name of the Tours candidate means that he regarded the citizens as disaffected and any candidate of theirs as bad news; which explains why he twice intruded his own household’s most trusted men in the see, and also why the first of them deliberately demolished the see’s finances.  Imposing able and trustworthy candidates from his own household shows that he was concerned to keep control of Tours; and changing direction after Gunthar to look for a credible Roman ecclesiastic shows that his concern, though abiding, had taken a different direction – he was now concerned that not to have such a candidate would sap the town’s loyalty.  And the Tourangeux knew what the king thought, which is why they went out of their way to find a candidate that would not offend him.  For more than ten years, everyone was treading as if on eggshells, the leading citizens of Tours afraid to offend the king, the king afraid of snapping whatever thin thread of loyalty held Tours in check.

Gregory himself ascribes the ruin of Gunthar’s mind to drink; yet what he describes is clearly senile dementia, a common enough condition and not hard to recognize.  It follows that Gregory’s view of his bishop’s disease may well be a matter of racial prejudice: Franks, to Romans such as Gregory, were drunkards, so that as soon as he saw the mind of one slowly falling apart, he did not trouble to look hard for the reason.  This suggests that the still highly Roman town of Tours, where such titles as Senator still meant something, may well not have welcomed bishops of Frankish blood; and if Gunthar’s illness and early death had been widely interpreted as Gregory interpreted it, it would have reinforced Roman prejudice and made the task of finding a reliable successor that much harder.

And the delicacy of the situation in Tours explains the events of 544.  It is clear that Lothar regarded the situation in Tours in 544 as so delicate that he was even willing to swallow the shameless defiance of Iniuriosus with every appearance of compunction; indeed even when Iniuriosus was dead, he did not, apparently, re-impose the tax (Iniuriosus’ defiance had been public and that the city knew about it; a king would not keep his hands off a third part of 20,000-plus gold solidi without a reason) but reduced the excessive power of the diocese of Tours by the less obvious and, from a Christian point of view, morally unchallengeable resort of dispersing its wealth to the poor.

Several features of Gregory’s account prove abundantly that the year 544 was some sort of watershed.  It is at this point that Gregory first introduces British noblemen in Brittany, indulging in a ferocious joust for power, fratricidal even by Frankish standards.  The way in which they fight and betray each other without fear of reprisal except for what they can inflict on each other, shows clearly enough that they have no superior power, no king or emperor above themselves, no common res publica to refer to; yet their position is strong enough, and that of Lothar so weak, that they can indulge in this murderous internal strife – the kind of thing that makes any potential invader lick his chops – with absolutely no concern about any Frankish intervention.  Indeed, it seems very likely that Lothar has in fact already been pushing his luck as far as it will take him: the weakness of his position in Tours in 544 suggests that he is a barely tolerated presence in the city, with none of the proprietary power of Frankish kings elsewhere.

There is one verifiable lie about the period before 544 in Gregory’s work: that Queen (Saint) Chlothilde came, after the death of her husband Clovis, to live in Tours, and stayed there all the days of her life, save for rare visits to Paris.  This cannot be true.  Every notice from this period places Chlothilde not in Tours but in Paris.  It is there, and not in Tours, that she kept and raised the three sons of her dead son Chlodomer[11] – that is, she was living in Paris, not just visiting it briefly.  She was living in Paris or near when Theudebert and Childebert, some considerable time after, nearly put an end to Lothar in the Forêt de Bretonne on the Seine[12]; it was only as a last resort (which suggests difficulty and even danger) that she travelled to the grave of St.Martin in Tours to pray for his safety[13].  And finally, four church foundations are associated with her: Les Andelys, St.Peter’s in Paris, the Holy Apostles in Rouen, and St.Peter’s in Reims.  Not one of them is anywhere near Tours: three of them are on the lower Seine, and one further east still.  In hoc loco commorata est omnibus diebus vitae suae, raro Parisius visitans?  Not hardly, my Lord Bishop.  One does not build four large churches during the intervals of “rare” visits; nor, if one has such a passion for church building, does one omit to build any in one’s supposed place of permanent residence, especially when the memories of one of Gaul’s greatest saints are there to be honoured.  At the same time, Iniuriosus built one church, rebuilt another, and reorganized worship in the cathedral; would Chlothilde not at least have taken part in these pious activities, if she had been anywhere near Tours?

Before 544, Lothar’s power seems to have dwindled continuously.  In 511, he took a share of his father’s inheritance.  By the 530s, he was clearly a secondary figure.  In a dreadful if rather moving story, showing the bandit-like morals and behaviour of these conquerors, Gregory shows him pressured by his brother Childebert into killing the nephews who, in Childebert’s view, threatened their expectations.  His true position is shown by the fact that, while the princes, being resident in Paris, were nominally under Lothar’s protection, his brother Childebert could decide and execute such a plan, roping him in, in his own kingdom.  Alternatively, if we think that Lothar actually already wanted the princes out of the way, it equally shows his weakness, that he could do nothing about it until Childebert conceived the idea independently.  Not long later, he is swindled out of his part of an Italian wergild[14], and has apparently no recourse (this seems to relate to his tax on the Church, in that both episodes suggest that he was short of money).  Finally, Childebert and his nephew Theudebert unite against him and nearly destroy him: apparently unable to field an army, he flees into the Forêt de Bretonne, and only a miraculous hailstorm (plus, one imagines, the expense and difficulty of keeping a Merovingian army in the field) dissuade his angry kinsmen.  Gregory says nothing of why they would be angry at him, but it is clear that by the time he is driven into the Forêt de Bretonne, he is reduced almost to the status of a private person, a persecuted king with no army and only a handful of followers.

From 544 onwards, Lothar’s fortunes change.  There are no more successful attempts against him, and even though we have to wait until 555 to hear of his being involved in war again, when he does, it’s a big one.  He waits for his nephew Theudebald (lord of the Frankish heartland of Neustria, that is Lorraine and the Rhine valley) to die, and when he does he steps in and takes over his kingdom and his wife (till the bishops object), the latter probably by way of claiming a magical succession to his royalty[15].  He then unleashes a campaign against Saxons and Thuringians[16].  The campaign fails, but Gregory (whose testimony is by this time beginning to be based on his own memories, since by the late 550s he was an adult) claims that this was the fault of his men, who insisted on fighting against the will of the king himself, and promptly threw away his victories with a disastrous defeat.  It is when his position is weakened by this defeat that the citizens of Tours propose their own choice of Bishop to him; Gregory explicitly links the two events[17].

Lothar is a consistent personality, whose approach is clearly shown in a number of episodes.  When the Saxons surrender to him on terms, he accepts their offer and tries to restrain the hatred of his men.  When he is swindled out of his part of the Italian wergild, he seizes the treasury of his dead brother Chlodomer (whose sons were the princes he and Childebert had murdered), which was in his power.  In 555, he walked in and seized the inheritance of his recently dead nephew Theudebald; in 558, when (in the middle of the umpteenth attempt against him) his brother Childebert died, Lothar calmly walked in and took over his lands and his treasury.  At the same time, he had to deal with his rebellious and bad-tempered son Chramn, who had allied himself with Childebert; he managed to manoeuvre Chramn into a disastrous flight into Brittany, which gave him the opportunity to enter the peninsula (hitherto closed to him and threatening all his lands) with a vast Frankish army, and nothing to fear at his back – and crush all his enemies at once.

In short, his method was that he would not make any rash attack, but as soon as an opening presented itself, he would go in as fast and as hard as he could, and take everything in his reach, whether or not it legally pertained to him.  The same mixture of prudence and sudden aggression seems visible in the affair of the two princes, in which he did nothing until Childebert approached, but proved the more ruthless and decisive of the two when, faced with actual live children, Childebert’s nerve faltered.  And the same kind of behaviour is evident in everything to do with Tours.  When Iniuriosus denied him his tax in almost insulting and certainly insolent terms, he did not seek a confrontation; but when Iniuriosus died, Lothar appointed his own man, with a mandate to weaken the diocese financially.  After ten years, he seems to feel that some conciliation of Tours’ feelings is called for, and so he seeks for a suitable Roman candidate to follow the two intrusive Franks; and when the candidacy of Cato falls apart in his hands, he does not cling stubbornly to his own views, but decides to make the best of a bad job.

It follows, or it is at least a reasonable inference, that when we find him making a swift retreat in front of Iniuriosus’ intemperate refusal to pay, it is because he does not want to risk his position in Tours.  And that in turn may well mean that he has only now taken possession of the city, with one of his sudden dashes at opportunity, and that his position, in front of an old, established, politically powerful and hugely rich bishop, is very weak.  One of Chramn’s advisers, Leo, was reputed to have said that St.Martin of Tours and St.Martial of Limoges had left nothing of value to the kings of the Franks; meaning, of course, the treasuries of their dioceses.  (Limoges is another town that only appears in Gregory’s account after 544.)  This sort of talk must have been commonplace in the corners of Frankish courts.

Here is clearly, then, a whole section of history lied about, hushed and buried.  Who was in power in Tours before Lothar made his dash for it?  What changed so suddenly in 544, that he felt able to move into the town – taking with himself, like a lucky charm, the elderly dowager who had made her home in the city so many years before and who was known for her devotion to St.Martin?  And is this not the exact counterpart of the effective silencing of a large-scale, royal presence of the British in Gaul in the same period, which we have argued on different grounds from the evidence both of Gregory and of Procopius?  I say that the two things go together; that between at least 528 and probably 543, the British held Tours; and finally, that the situation of which Lothar took advantage to seize the city and, in all likelihood, the whole Loire valley, was the same which led the remaining British lords in Brittany to – I quote myself - “fight and betray each other without fear of reprisal except for what they can inflict on each other, [which] shows clearly enough that they have no superior power, no king or emperor above themselves, no common res publica to refer to”.  In other words, there has been a British collapse of authority that left the British lords to squabble for position in the conquered Gaulish territories, and gave the nearly landless Lothar his chance.

This also explains Gregory’s extraordinary silence about Britain and all matters British, as well as about the history of Tours between Chlodomer’s nomination of Ommatius – in fact, between Chlothilde’s anti-Burgundian activities – and Lothar’s spat with Iniuriosus.  Gregory was not only a man of great and wide-ranging curiosity, always in search of the next anecdote, the next pious story, the next dire omen or tragic family squabble or natural oddity; he was also an enormously brave man, who, believing that the living and powerful queen Fredegund was a murderess several times over, and that she had actually had a bishop murdered in his own cathedral (that is, that episcopal rank would not protect him if he crossed her), nevertheless denounced her in writing and in the clearest possible terms.  Whether or not Fredegund was as bad as he painted her, this was a heroic act, showing a temper not to be silenced.  For what reason, then, is this free-spoken bishop so completely silent about all things British?

One reason, and one only, can explain it: sense of responsibility for his diocese.  Gregory did not mind risking his own life by denouncing a sadistic royal murderess; but, like the city leaders who had proposed his cousin Eufronius’ name to Lothar, he is desperately eager not to raise, in whatever form, the ghosts of the city’s recent past.

Gregory was elected bishop after Eufronius, to the tune of a praise poem by his young friend Venantius Fortunatus[18] (Venantius’ Poem 5.3).  Addressed to the people of Tours, it invites them all, strong youth and bent elder, to rejoice in the consecration of the man who had received their “recent votes/wishes” (noua uota), the “hope of the flock” (spes gregis) of Tours.  Their “concerned eyes” (sollicitis oculis) had demanded for him (quem… uota petebant), and now that he comes, they can rejoice.  The saints of the town rejoice in his arrival.  Throughout the poem, Venantius works very hard the significant pun between his Greek name Gregory and grex, gregis, flock: he is the shepherd of the city’s flock (pastor in urbe gregis), the lover of the town, the father of his people – a shepherd over and over again, but always specifically the shepherd of Tours.

Who elected him?  The people of Tours, and they alone.  The then Frankish king, Sigibert, favours and hails him; his wife Brunhilde (whose presence here is of great interest – it cannot be often that royal ladies are specifically thanked for their menfolk’s political decisions) honours him, and the king’s noble decision is the climax to this enthronement (Huic Sigiberthus ouans fauet, et Brunichildis honori;/ iudicio regis nobile culmen adest).  In other words, the king has not decided on the nomination, but “highly approved” (ouans fauet) of it, in part thanks to his wife’s pressure; his approval (for thus it is that we have to read that multivalent word iudicium) is not absent (adest) from the man whom the uota, the citizens’ votes, have asked (petent) for bishop.  There is a strong suggestion that the journey to get the king’s approval was not without danger – not exclusively the danger of royal rejection – in the way the citizens are invited at length to rejoice and sing, in tones more suited to a battle won, or a grim jeopardy successfully negotiated.  The rest of the poem is dedicated in equal parts to Venantius’ forecast of the way that the new, conscientious shepherd will both foster the increase of his flock and protect them from all dangers, watching over its sleeping lambs day and night, that they may not be devoured by wolves nor struck by any robbery.  It is notable that the verses speaking of the dangers from which he will protect them (20-25) have no explicit spiritual meaning whatever; Venantius does not say that Gregory will protect his flock from spiritual dangers, from temptation, sin or hell; he just says – and says with some emphasis and deliberate repetition – that he will protect them.  Which is obviously related to the rejoicing Venantius encourages, probably with good reason.

What dangers may have threatened Tours at the time are suggested by the contemporary fate of Limoges, another one of those places which go unmentioned until 544, compared by Chramn’s friend Leo to Tours for the anti-Frankish wealth of its bishops.  In 578, the city saw what Gregory describes as a fairly ordinary kind of tax revolt against savage taxation by Lothar’s son Chilperic.  Nobody was killed; the one proposed victim, Marcus the tax collector, had been given shelter by the local bishop.  Nevertheless, Chilperic, a murderous paranoiac reminiscent of Henry VIII in his intellectual and religious pretensions, punished Limoges with unheard-of cruelty, striking with particular savagery at the ecclesiastical leaders, whom he suspected of having tried to destroy the tax returns[19].  The issues are exactly the same as in the clash between Lothar and Iniuriosus: taxation on the Church, the resistance of leading ecclesiastics suspected by the Franks of having taken the wealth of the land away from themselves, and the close relationship between these rich ecclesiastics and the people of their city, to the exclusion and to the danger of the Frankish kings (we have seen that the fact that Lothar did not dare claim the tax even after Iniuriosus was dead meant that the issue was known to the city, and that Lothar had reason to fear for their loyalty if he tried)[20].

Gregory, the conscientious bishop, was demanded by his fellow-citizens and accepted by the Frankish king at his wife’s insistence.  The political climate was dominated by Frankish paranoia about Roman bishops and their flocks colluding to keep the wealth of the nation away from Frankish kings.  Gregory the conscientious bishop is silent about his city’s whole recent past, and about its political attitudes – even though they can be read well enough in the grain of what stories he does tell.  I repeat that if one thing is clear, it is that Lothar had reason to doubt the loyalty of the citizens of Tours; what is more, the fact that he still was nervous about their initiatives a good ten years after 544 means that his fear was ingrained and depended on something which had proved true for a very long time.  We are not talking about a few months of British – or at any rate non-Frankish – occupation.  He regarded the city as a nest of disaffection; and even thirty, indeed fifty, years after 544, Gregory was trying to keep any thoughts of possible disaffection from Frankish minds.  And we remember that L claimed that Armorica (to which Tours belonged) and some other Roman provinces in Gaul had followed Britain in both rejecting Roman law and going to war with “the barbarians from over the Rhine” (hoi hyper ton Rhenon barbaroi), a description that fits the Franks.

This puts another event of the time in a new light.  In about 532, Clermont-Ferrand and the whole of the Auvergne rebelled, not, apparently, in favour of the still-hated and Arian Visigoths (who had managed to push as far as Rodez, on the very margins of Auvergne) but simply against the Franks.  Gregory’s account[21] is very unclear, both about the details of this revolt and about its political goals; we only hear (typically) of what the Frankish kings did: the occupation and savage repression of Clermont-Ferrand, the siege of two fortresses (Vollore and Chastel-Marlhac) and the ravaging of the whole region. This had been no mere riot, but the concerted rising of a whole area, defeated by measures worthy of a major war[22].

In other words, there is reason to think that something happened in or shortly before 532, to give Romans in Auvergne (a region with a tradition of loyalty to Roman ways) a hope that the Franks, still aliens and barbarians, might be got rid of.  Gregory explains it with a rumour of the death of Theudebert in the war in Thuringia, but this is simply not enough: if the Auvergnats were as our maps represent them, isolated in the middle of an ocean of Teutons, with no recourse against the Franks except for the even more odious, heretical Goths and Burgundians, they simply would not have rebelled; a jacquerie of some sort is imaginable, but not the widespread uprising, with fortresses in arms and the local senatorial nobility in revolt, which one reads between Gregory’s lines.  Arcadius, the leader of the revolt, was the grandson of Sidonius Apollinaris, who had led the last stand of the Romans of Auvergne against the Visigoths sixty years earlier.  The Franks had refused to allow his father Apollinaris to become bishop of Clermont-Ferrand.  Gregory seems to suggests that Arcadius tried to play Childeric against Theuderic, to whom Auvergne was assigned; but Childeric does not seem to have done anything to stop Theuderic ravaging the country, contrary to precedent and expectations.

Geoffrey of Monmouth dates Arthur’s invasion of Gaul to about 528-529; which is also when Francilio dies of poison in Tours, to be replaced by an incumbent who seems, after 544, to have been neither well disposed to the Franks nor popular with them.  Succeeding events show that the two great cities of Tours and Limoges – the latter half-way to Auvergne – are regarded as nests of disaffection; the careful Lothar takes measures to weaken Tours and keep loyal men in charge, while his paranoid son Chilperic deals with Limoges cruelly.  The revolt of Auvergne and its ferocious reduction in 532 and following years take place while the Franks are engaged in reducing Burgundy, which falls in the next couple of years, enlarging Frankish territory and giving them more space to resist – shall we say – any intruder who might be coming in from the west and the ocean.

There is a discrepancy between the end of Frankish influence in Tours, which seems to have happened about 525-26 with the episcopates of either Leo (whose name is curiously the same as that of Arthur’s “Roman” enemy) or Francilio, and the actual arrival of Arthur, which seems to coincide with the poisoning of Francilio and the enthronement of Iniuriosus.  Poisoning a bishop for political reasons is of course quite in keeping with Arthur’s notorious ways with the Church – practically every negative view of him from the Vita Paterni to the Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle is of ecclesiastical origin – but it is not clear that Francilio was in the service of the Franks, in spite of his name.

One theory might explain it: that, before Arthur ever entered Gaul, the Ambrosiads had somehow managed to re-occupy Tours.  While we have no reason to believe that Arthur had anything to do with Gaul before 528, we know that the Ambrosiads had ancient and long-remembered connections with Armorica; and two separate items of information – the Lovocatus-Catihernus affair and Gregory’s notice that “the British” were regarded as having the rank of Frankish counts in Gaul since 511 – show a continued British presence in Gaul, however feeble.  Forty years earlier, the British had been strong enough to represent the mainstay of Roman power in Gaul.  The war of the Loire saw them defeated, only for an army of Frankish pagans led by Childeric (father of the future conqueror Clovis) to take their place as defenders of Catholic Romans against the aggressive Visigoths, and win the war (468).  In the following years, the area between the Marne and the Loire was apparently held by a Roman nobleman, Aegidius, and by his son Syagrius.  Much later accounts (followed by modern historians, whose maps mark a large area in north-west Gaul as the “territory of Syagrius”) make them “Kings of the Romans”; but what little evidence there is, is that their title was magistri militum, army commanders, a title which implies a higher power above them.  You can only be magister militum for the Emperor, or at any rate for a fully functioning Roman government.  We know that Aegidius de-recognized the Emperor of Ravenna in the 460s, but there is no indication whatever that Aegidius and Syagrius ever claimed the imperial title for themselves.  At the same time, the Ambrosiads claimed from Britain to be legitimate imperial claimants.  Their roots, since 442, were probably in Armorica; and the Roman province of Armorica actually made up the bulk of Aegidius’ territories.  All this demands to be read as meaning that Aegidius and Syagrius were magistri militum of the Roman Emperor in Britain[23].

During the same period, the Vita Genouevae (Life of St.Genevieve of Paris) tells of Childeric leading a heavy Frankish presence around the Paris region.  I do not think that any historian doubts any longer that the Life was written, as it claims, within eighteen years of Genevieve’s death, and recent French historical writing treats its account of Childeric’s operations as untroubledly historical[24].  It would seem that Childeric’s tribe had tried to follow up his successful part in the war of the Loire with some sort of intromission in Roman northern Gaul.  We have seen that the Franks seem to have felt the need of a border settlement of Saxon foederati between themselves and the Roman territory, which does not indicate friendly relations.

In 486, Clovis defeated Syagrius (what happened to the defeated commander is not known).  It was only after this that the Visigoths managed to seize Tours, as shown by the arrest and exile of Bishops Volusianus (491) and Verus (498), treated as leaders of Roman resistance.  In other words, they took Tours from what they regarded as Roman opponents, not from Clovis.  What is more, they did so at least five years after Clovis had supposedly defeated Syagrius and conquered “his” territory; yet, it was not until 507 that Clovis felt strong enough to move against them.

From this I argue that not only until the fall of Syagrius, but even later, a Roman presence remained on the Loire, defeated only in Bishop Volusianus’ time.  This must be connected with the continued British presence, which, as we have seen, was at a very low ebb, but had not ceased to exist, by the time of Lovocatus and Catihernus.  Gregory - followed in every important respect by the chronicler pseudo-Fredegar - wrote a full century later, and when he attributes the Frankish conquest of north-west Gaul to a single war between Clovis and Syagrius, we do not have to think that he is particularly well informed.  The struggle for what became Frankish Neustria was longer, more bitter and more inconclusive than we realize.

Another piece of evidence is the attitude of the authors of the Life of Germanus and of Genevieve.  To the former, whose identity we know – the aged and sick Constantius of Lyons, devoutly Catholic and devoutly Roman, trying hard to write and think as though the fallen Western Empire were still a reality – Germanus’ mission to Britain, rescuing that country for Catholicism, was one of his central achievements, perhaps the central one; and he does not fail to remind his readers that Britain had remained Catholic to his day.

What was Constantius saying here?  Obviously, that his readers owe Germanus gratitude for this great deed.  But it is perhaps not realized how much gratitude Constantius feels.  In the 480s, not only was Germanic Arianism ascendant throughout the West, with Odoacer’s conquest of Italy completing the ring of Arian Teutonic kingdoms around the western Mediterranean – the Ostrogoths in the Balkans, Odoacer in Italy, the Burgundians, the Visigoths, the Vandals – but the Catholic Church was even at odds with the last reigning Emperor, Zeno of the East, whose ill-judged henotikon or proposal for reconciliation between Catholics and Monophysites had been rejected in most quarters and left Constantinople in schism with Rome and Rome itself with no political support anywhere in the Mediterranean.

It is at this point that Constantius writes a biography of Germanus of Auxerre that stresses his success in keeping Britain Catholic - and mentions as if in passing that, thanks to Germanus, Britain is orthodox to this day.  Is it not clear that this Catholic Britain is the one ray of light in the profound darkness of the struggling Catholics of Gaul - indeed, of the entire Roman world?  In the dying days of Constantius - he was old and ailing as he wrote the Life - Britain must have shone to Gallic Christian eyes as the only light over a black horizon; a country where the Church had not only been rescued, but was actively busy rescuing others elsewhere.  It may be that word had reached Gaul of the growing success of the Irish mission, where a nation once as pagan as the Franks was being won over by stages we can no longer perceive, but which had produced a solid Church by the time the plague of 547 devastated it; certainly, Britain had managed to survive the onslaught of pagan tribes and establish a presence in Gaul which defied both Franks and Visigoths.

The Life of Ste.Genevieve of Paris is a very different work from that of the conscious, educated, aristocratic rhetor Constantius: its author, whether or not he was a cleric, was a man of the people, with no political or indeed administrative view beyond theirs.  When Genevieve wants to rebuild the church of Saint Dionysius or Denis, she appeals personally to the local priests and then finds the building materials by miracle (a miracle in which we retrieve some of the features of the legend of Vortigern’s fortress, and other features of Celtic legend).  There is no notion of administration, government, organization: matters are always settled face to face with some powerful person, with Genevieve storming to face Childeric or sailing upriver to get supplies for Paris in person.  The Latin is of a piece with the mentality - inelegant, often ungrammatical, always earth-bound and approximate.  The Life clearly tells the stories of Genevieve that were current in Paris in the writer’s time, with little effort to deepen or harmonize them (the bishop supposed to have consecrated Genevieve, one Villicus, appears in no other document); that is, they are the precious and fascinating document of a developping cult.

Political perspectives are therefore not to be expected.  But when the Life has Germanus consecrate her in two successive episodes, each of which takes place just as he is about to set out on one of his journeys to Britain, is it not clear that Genevieve is meant to be a sharer in Germanus’ triumphs?  And if so, how?  She never went to Britain; yet her consecration is part of Germanus’ great mission.  In other words, it shares in the special blessing that God had offered the Church and the Catholic West, thought that particular mission, in preparation for the dark days of the end of the fifth century, when Arians, Monophysites, schismatics and Frankish pagans seemed fated to share the fallen inheritance of the Empire of the West.  The author of the Life of Genevieve, writing in a period of Frankish power (520AD) and perhaps dreading more British intervention, made Genevieve the inheritor of Germanus’ mantle; so that her contacts with Childeric and Clovis, helping to Christianize the new Frankish power, could be seen as part of that Saint’s great deeds.  In other words, it is the Franks, not the British, who are Germanus’ heirs, defenders of the Catholic faith.  That religion was the fundamental issue is clear by the fact that even after he defeated Syagrius by force of arms, Clovis was not safe until he had allowed himself to be baptized; almost twenty years elapsed before he felt secure enough to go forth against the Visigoths in the name of his supposed new faith.  And when he went, he found Catholic Britons settled in his new territories - and it was his own man, the Bishop Licinius who gained the throne of Tours (508) after the battle of Vouillé (507), who dealt with them in the savage manner we have seen.

And if the British presence in Armorica had lasted into the period of Bishop Licinius (508-520), there is no reason to think that it had not regained enough strength by 525-6 to recover a city, Tours, which they had held within living memory (it was, I repeat, lost to the Visigoths only in the reign of Bishop Volusianus (491-98).  The Franks had evidently never managed to banish them from the Continent, and it is even possible that Arthur’s triumphs against Saxons, Scots and Picts may have reinforced the Ambrosiad position in Britain, and therefore their ability to project force in Gaul, for a while.  Alternatively, the rising power of the rex rebellis in the north may have encouraged the Ambrosiads to strengthen their position in Gaul, to have more resources to meet him and less threats behind.

The invasion of Gaul and the war with the “Romans” is easily explained as a pursuit of the Ambrosiads all the way to the original base of their power, the north-west Gaulish territories from which Ambrosius launched his war of liberation.  One of the things that the Lovocatus-Catihernus affair has proved is that there remained, even at the height of Frankish conquest, a distinctly British presence in Gaul, with clear and unbroken links with the British homeland and through that with the Roman East; and that has to mean an armed, military presence.  It may be, as Morris has suggested, that Britons such as these, still in arms and settled in Armorica, reached some sort of compromise with the Franks involving a juridical fiction that they were “Counts” of the Frankish king rather than kings over their own tribes, which Gregory later invoked.  However, this tribal presence must have had leaders whom they regarded as kings.  A tribal presence such as Lovocatus and Catihernus hint at would naturally regard their leader as of royal rank, though probably a teyrn rather than a gwledig.  (Forty years earlier, Rigothamus had taken his royal title to the war of the Loire.)  Again, the fact that their presence left apparently undisturbed the Roman power in the Church must mean that they lived in a still basically Roman society (though Armorica had always been rather at the edge of Roman civilization in Gaul) and may have represented only a part of the Ambrosiad power in the land, the rest of which probably expressed itself in Roman rather than Celtic forms.  I see Ambrosiad Brittany as representing, like the rest of the Ambrosiad “Empire”, a compromise between a still upheld Roman ius and the effective military power of the tribes, with their Celtic law and culture.  We remember that I argued that the English saw Britain as a patchwork of Wealhas, Latin-speaking Romans, and combroges, Celtic-speakers; this suggests the same pattern in Brittany, as well as the reason for it – regiments of tribal Northern levies were taken, with their chieftains, to live in and defend the Roman lands south of York.  This is the “historical compromise” that Arthur wanted to smash, in the name of an all-Celtic new order[25].


[1] To be precise, a brief chronicle survives from Avenches, in Switzerland; but it has nothing to say about North Gaul that Gregory has not said better, and there is internal evidence that Marius, its compiler, had met Gregory.  Other material may be drawn from a contemporary Spanish chronicle, but it has even less interest in North Gaul.  For anything north of Provence, Gregory is our only source.

[2] This might not be altogether his fault.  Gregory was born in 539, and only knew this period by hearsay; in the period of which he has personal knowledge, he describes Frankish checks and defeats accurately and remorselessly.  His account of Beppolen and Ebrachar’s disastrous invasion of Brittany in 589 is as comprehensive a description of self-inflicted military disaster as anyone might desire.  One suspects the influence of older men or written sources.  On the other hand, his silence about Britain throughout, and about his own town until 544, is really too comprehensive not to depend on his own personal decision.

[3] 3.17

[4] 4.2

[5] 10.31

[6] 3.34

[7] 4.41.  The war was to “rid Italy of the Longobards”; that is, it was meant as a major enterprise.

[8] 10.31

[9] 4.11

[10] 4.15

[11] 3.18

[12] 3.28.  The information that this is the Forest of Bretonne comes from a footnote in the Penguin edition at this point.

[13] If, indeed, she did.  If Tours was held by Arthur at this period, as I believe, it would have been immensely dangerous for the widow of Clovis to show her face there.  On the other hand, Gregory was concerned to maintain St.Martin’s reputation for miracles, especially for miracles affecting the royal order of Gaul/France; and at the time of the civil war and Chlothilde’s supposed journey to Tours, he was a very young child, hardly of an age to make a reliable witness.  If he was told that Chlothilde prayed to St.Martin, he might have concluded that she actually went to his grave, without this being necessarily the case.  Alternatively, the prayers for Lothar’s safety may have been connected with one of Chlothilde’s four church foundations, mentioned in the text.

[14] 3.31

[15] 4.9

[16] 4.10

[17] 4.14-15

[18] Venantius was a young presbyter from Italy with a charming poetic gift and an ability to spot the outstanding people of his time (among his dearest friends were Gregory himself and the great St.Radegund).  A much better Latin stylist than Gregory, there is an interesting parallel between his attitude to the older man and what I suggested was the attitude of Secundinus to Patrick: in both cases, a much better writer – in fact, an accomplished Latin stylist – put his pen in the service of a bishop much less well educated than himself, but who had, in his view, the qualities of a living saint.

[19] GREGORY op.cit.5.28.

[20] The economic ruination of Roman cities led by disliked bishops was not a new instrument of Frankish policy.  Fifty years earlier, Clovis’ savage son Theuderic had reduced Verdun, whose bishop Desideratus he hated, to penury, until his wiser son Theudebert (whom Procopius regarded as the leading Frankish king) had reversed his father’s policy, with that grant-in-aid of 7,000 gold solidi I mentioned earlier.  GREGORY, op.cit. 3.34.  Perhaps Theudebert’s mood was swayed by Desideratus’ incredibly grovelling message of supplication, which it is amusing to compare with Iniuriosus’ stinging rebuke to Theudebert’s uncle Lothar.

[21] GREGORY op.cit.3.9, 11-13, 16, 23.

[22] This, incidentally, might help a revision of the account of Frankish military history.  It has been said that Frankish armies were undisciplined hordes who would devastate any region they entered, friend or foe; but if the account of the reduction of Auvergne is part of the evidence, then it should become clear that this was not a case of an army billeted in a loyal region and running riot, but of the violent re-conquest of a revolted country.  Cf.SIR CHARLES OMAN, The art of war in the middle ages, London 1924, 59-62.

[23] See Appendix VIII.

[24] See the reference to Childeric’s “abortive attack on Paris” in MICHEL ROUCHE, Autopsy of the West: the early sixth century, page 56, in ROBERT FOSSIER (ED.), The Cambridge illustrated history of the Middle Ages, Cambridge 1997, vol.1.

[25] There is another event that seems connected to strategic genius of the same order, and to the same naval consideration: the sudden appearance, in north-west Spain, of a British colony with its own bishop, who, in 574 (thirty years after the great king’s fall), signed himself with the Arthurian-age name of Maelog.  This, of course, cannot be ascribed to Arthur, and I don’t know of any document that even suggests it; but if not he, who?  In that short bloody time whose unsettlement led inevitably to English conquest, whose narrow and fratricidal conflicts, meanly bounded by Britain and Brittany, are so well documented by Gildas and Gregory, in which British nobles could only think of grabbing their brother’s land, their cousin’s inheritance, their neighbour’s lordship – who would have the resources, the breadth of outlook, the security from attack, to set out on such a large-scale, high-risk enterprise, settling a colony on a distant headland which however covered the vital trade route with Byzantium – and, incidentally, any Byzantine fleets who might come a-calling as they had done in Africa and Italy, and as, as Procopius indicates, and Gildas fears, they might do in Britain?  What is more, the position of the Spanish colony seems to me almost an echo in the West of Arthur’s raids in Scandinavia and of his supposed establishment of client kings there.  If you can tell an Old Master by the sweep of his brush, this daring little settlement seems to have all the hallmarks of the master hand, from the Celtic name of its bishop to its naval nature.

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

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