ORB Encyclopedia: Online Essays
SUB-ROMAN BRITAIN: AN INTRODUCTION
"Sub-Roman Britain" is a label applied by specialists to Britannia
in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Geographically, Britannia is that
territory south of the Forth-Clyde line that was part of the Roman Empire
from AD 43 to 410. Gaining their independence from Rome, the sub-Roman Britons
created a culture that was a unique hybrid of Roman, native "Celtic," and
Christian elements. These first two centuries of the Early Middle Ages also
gave birth to medieval kingdoms that would become England, Scotland, and
Wales. Vibrant yet enigmatic, the sub-Roman period came to an end with the
expansion of the Anglo-Saxons westward in the late sixth century and the
establishment of a Roman ecclesiastical mission in Kent in 597.
This period has become more popularly known as the Age of Arthur.
Both King Arthur and Merlin are associated with these two centuries, Arthur
as a warleader battling the Saxon invaders and Merlin as a British bard with
prophetic gifts. Modern quests for the historical Arthur (e.g. Alcock 1971;
Morris 1973; Ashe 1985) and Merlin (Tolstoy 1985) have increased popular
interest in the period, but have convinced few historians (Dumville 1977;
Snyder 1998; Higham 2002). Indeed, the limitations of both the historical
and archaeological evidence have made it difficult to discuss any person,
place, or event in sub-Roman Britain with confidence, leaving us with cautious
and colorless models that admittedly lack the appeal of Arthurian romance
(Thomas 1981, 245-53). Historians, it has recently been declared, can as
yet say little of value about King Arthur (Charles-Edwards 1991).
Historians can, however, say much of value about the fifth and
sixth centuries, the period in which either Arthur or his legend was born.
To do this we should eventually discard the label "sub-Roman," first used
by archaeologists to describe fifth-century pottery that had "degenerated"
from Roman forms. To say that sub-Roman Britain was simply "Roman Britain
in decay" is to overlook both its achievements (monasticism, penitentials)
and the continuity with its Roman (Latin education, Mediterranean trade) and
Celtic (La Tène jewelry, the bardic tradition) past. Accessing the
culture of the sub-Roman Britons, however, means dealing with three often
difficult types of evidence: literary, epigraphic, and archaeological.
The literary evidence for sub-Roman Britain is quite sparse compared to such
contemporary societies as Frankish Gaul and the Byzantine East. Britain produced
only two native writers (they were hardly historians) in this period--the
clerics Patrick and Gildas--and received few mentions in Continental chronicles.
The historical narrative for Britain is detailed for the late fourth century,
but dwindles after the first decade of the fifth century and remains dark
until the Northumbrian scholar Bede began compiling information for his Ecclesiastical
History of the English People in the late seventh century.
Several writers record barbarian raids which devastated the British
provinces in 360 and 367 (Ammianus Marcellinus 20.1 and 27.8), 382 and 408
(Gallic Chronicle of 452). The situation was made worse by the withdrawal
of troops from Britain by Magnus Maximus in 383, Stilicho in 402, and Constantine
III in 407, all of which were the results of political and military turmoil
on the Continent. The Roman civil and military administration in Britain
took matters in its own hands, electing three successive "tyrants"--Marcus,
Gratian, and Constantine--in 406, a traumatic year which ended with barbarians
(Alans, Sueves, and Vandals) swarming across the frozen Rhine.
The last of these British usurpers took the title Constantine
III, and crossed to Gaul with an army to secure the western frontiers and
make good his imperial claims. This Constantine's story is ultimately one
of betrayal and defeat, ending with his capture at Arles in 411 and subsequent
execution (Orosius, Adversum Paganos 7.42.1-4). Interesting events,
however, began unfolding in Britain soon after Constantine's departure. The
barbarian devastations of 408, in particular the sea-borne raids of Saxons,
led the Britons to make a bid for political and military independence from
Rome. The following account of these events is from the Byzantine historian
The barbarians . . . reduced the inhabitants of Britain
and some of the Gallic peoples to such straits that they revolted from the
Roman empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, and reverted to their native
customs. The Britons, therefore, armed themselves and . . . freed their cities
from the attacking barbarians. The whole of Armorica and other Gallic provinces,
in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, by expelling
the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted (Zosimus,
New History 6.5.2-3).
This "revolution" has been variously interpreted as a struggle between pro-Roman/Catholic
and pro-Celtic/Pelagian parties (Myres 1960; Morris 1965), a class-struggle
between bacaudae (dissident peasants) and landowners (Thompson 1977;
Wood 1984), and a political coup staged by urban elites (Snyder, 1998). Whatever
the nature of the revolt, it was officially recognized by the emperor Honorius,
who, in 410, sent letters to the cities of Britain giving them "permission"
to fend for themselves (Zosimus 6.10.2). After 410, Rome was no longer able
to assert control over Britain (Procopius, Bellum Vandalicum 3.2.38),
and the island came to be ruled by a multitude of Romano-British "tyrants"
(Jerome, Epistola 133.9,14) as well as by the Saxon newcomers (Gallic
Chronicle of 511).
It is impossible to write a narrative history of sub-Roman Britain
after 410. The only datable references to Britain in contemporary documents
are the recording of two visits of St. Germanus of Auxerre to the island
to fight Pelagianism in 429 (Prosper, Chronicon) and c.445 (Constantius,
Life of St. Germanus 5.25), and a chronicle entry for the year 441 stating
that at least a portion of the island had "passed into the power of the Saxons"
(Gallic Chronicle of 452). The next securely datable events in British
history begin with St. Augustine's arrival in Kent in 597.
For the interim period, historians are forced to deal with a lot
of "unhistorical" material which is devoid of dates and often of personal
and place names. For the fifth century we have the writings of Patrick, a
Briton who became the most famous (and arguably the most successful) Christian
missionary in Ireland. Patrick was born on a small estate (villula)
owned by his father Calpornius, who held both civic and church offices in
the nearby town of Bannavem Taburniae (Thomas 1981, 310-13). Patrick
was kidnapped from the estate at the age of sixteen and taken to Ireland
where he was sold into slavery. There, desolate and alone, he turned to Christ
and experienced a very powerful conversion. Six years later he escaped to
Britain and underwent ecclesiastical training to become a priest, later returning
to Ireland as bishop with a missinary zeal to convert his former captors.
Patrick left at least two writings which, in unpolished Latin
and unsophisticated prose, reveal something of both his character and of
contemporary Irish and British society. The first is a scathing letter addressed
to the soldiers of a British warlord named Coroticus, who was responsible
for kidnapping and murdering many of Patrick's new Irish converts (Thompson
1986). The Letter to Coroticus provides personal information about
both Patrick and the Briton Coroticus, who Patrick describes as acting "like
a tyrant" (Epistola 6). Patrick's second work, written towards the
end of his life, is a spiritual autobiography or Confession in the
form made famous by Augustine of Hippo (though Patrick's sincere personal
statement is hardly a masterpiece of theological speculation). Here, Patrick
describes the Britain of his youth and the British Church which sponsored--but
is now having doubts about--Patrick's Irish mission.
While Britain appears only occasionally in Patrick's writings,
it features prominently in those of Gildas who lived in the early sixth century.
Gildas, also a Briton and a member of the clergy, penned a substantial work
called The Ruin of Britain and is thought to have been responsible
for a monastic Penitential (possibly the first of its kind in the
western Church) which bears his name as well as Fragments of some
lost letters discussing church matters. The Ruin of Britain begins
with an "historical" prologue which narrates the foreign and domestic wars
plaguing Britain since the departure of the Romans, then turns into an impassioned
sermon (a jeremiad in the true sense of the word) denouncing the crimes of
current British rulers and the sins of the British clergy. Though his language
and imagery is frequently that of the Old Testament (Wright 1984), Gildas
occasionally drops clues about Britain's political and ecclesiastical arrangements,
and about his own classical Latin education (Lapidge 1984).
Gildas claims that the Scots and especially the Picts were causing
such a serious threat to Britain that a "council" (consilium) was
convened and its members, together with the "proud tyrant" (superbus tyrannus),
elected to hire Saxon merceneries to defend the eastern portion of the island.
(The technical military language employed by Gildas likely means that the
Britons were following the Late Roman practice of hiring barbarian foederati).
The Saxons turned against their employers, defeating British forces and plundering
British towns until a Romano-Britain named Ambrosius Aurelianus assumed military
leadership. Thereafter victories were traded by both sides until the siege
of Badon Hill, traditionally dated c. AD 500, which took place in the year
of Gildas's birth. The Britons emerged from Badon victorious, but soon fell
into civil war and corruption. Gildas attacks five contemporary rulers (variously
termed "kings" and "tyrants")--Constantine of Dumnonia, Aurelius Caninus,
Vortipor of the Demetae, Cuneglasus, and Maglocunus--for swearing false oaths,
acting as corrupt judges, and entertaining flatterers and murderers at their
courts (not to mention their own sins ranging from adultery to regicide).
The British secular clergy are little better--greed, gluttony, and simony
weigh them down--while only the monastics (probably few in Gildas's day)
are worthy of praise. Interspersed among these attacks, and in Gildas's other
writings, are more mundane details about diet, dress, and entertainment in
Gildas and Patrick are our two most important sources of information
for sub-Roman Britain. There are a few other sources which, because they were
written down later for the most part, must be used cautiously as evidence
for the fifth and sixth centuries. A collection of 158 charters recorded in
the Book of Llan Dâv, dealing mostly with land grants in southeast
Wales, has been used (W. Davies 1978) to show the transition of Late Roman
to Early Medieval estates (some of the charters appear to date originally
to the sixth century). The earliest British vernacular bardic poetry, such
as those verses attributed to Aneirin and Taliesin, is sometimes used to
reconstruct "heroic" society from the late sixth century on. Bede, writing
in the eighth century but drawing on much earlier material (including Gildas),
gives us a few additional clues about the sub-Roman period (including the
name of the "proud tyrant"--Vortigern). Another English source, the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle composed in Wessex beginning in the ninth century, records
Saxon victories over the British (and the names of both British and Saxon
leaders) which may derrive from earlier oral accounts. Two collections of
British historical material from the ninth and tenth centuries, the History
of the Britons (attributed to the Welsh monk Nennius) and the Welsh
Annals, may likewise draw on some contemporary records from the late
sixth century on. Finally, there is a vast body of Welsh genealogies and
saints' lives, the earliest of which is probably the Cornish Life of St.
Samson written in the early seventh century.
The literary evidence sometimes provides names for persons and places in
sub-Roman Britain, but more often we must deal with the clues present in both
the political (reges, tyranni, cives) and ecclesiastical
(episcopi, presbyteri, monachi) terminolgy employed by
the writers (Snyder 1998). These clues are also present in the epigraphic
evidence for Roman and sub-Roman Britain. The vast corpus of Roman inscriptions
from Britain--mostly in stone but also occasionally on metal plaques, pottery,
and writing tablets--can tell us something of both the public and private
life of Britons in the twilight years of the Roman occupation (Collingwood
and Wright 1965). While much of this evidence comes from the military (i.e.
soldiers' tombstones), it tells us something of the religions prevalent in
Roman Britain, the ethnic origins of the soldiery, and even what foodstuffs
(such as the ever-present cervisa, a Celtic beer) were shipped to
Christianity of course became a significant presence in all of
the western provinces by the end of the fourth century. Some Christianized
Britons, perhaps inspired by their Gallic counterparts, began commemorating
their dead in the fifth century through inscribed memorial stones. Most of
the surviving examples come from Wales (Nash-Williams 1950) and the Southwest
(Okasha 1993; Thomas 1994), with a few instances in southern towns and in
Scotland. These inscriptions are usually in Latin and are occasionally accompanied
by the short-lived Irish alphabet known as ogam (McManus 1991). This
epigraphic evidence from the fifth and sixth centuries has revealed a multitude
of personal names (of the famous and of the obscure), various terms for rulers
(rex, protector, magistrate) and clergy, and at least
one profession (a medicus). While dating these inscriptions can be
difficult, much more can be made of this evidence for Early Medieval British
society than has heretofore been attempted.
The material culture of the sub-Roman Britons is increasingly being revealed
through the medium of archaeology. At first used merely to supplement the
written sources, archaeological evidence is now often taking center stage
in Britain. The maturation of scientific archaeology has even lead some true-believers
to ignore the problematic written sources and treat the fifth and sixth centuries
as a "prehistoric" era, which has freed them to construct new socio-political
models devoid of names and dates (Arnold 1984). More common, however, is
the archaeological survey which attempts to answer the questions posed by
the written sources and come up with historical or at least quasi-historical
explanations for the sub-Roman period (Esmonde Cleary 1989; Dark 1993).
While Roman urban archaeology has long been pursued enthusiastically
in Britain, Dark Age archaeology has been just that, dark. But the last fifty
years of excavations has shed new light on both the sub-Roman phases of many
Roman towns and on rural fortified settlements--"hillforts"--and monasteries.
If not spectacular in their artifactual assemblage, these excavations have
revealed impressive structures and the insight that sub-Roman Britain was
anything but isolated and culturally impoverished.
The first, and perhaps most important, discovery came in the 1930s
with Ralegh Radford's excavations at Tintagel,
Cornwall (Radford 1939). Beyond the inner ward of Tintagel's Norman castle,
Radford uncovered the remains of several small rectangular structures made
of stone and slate as well as thousands of sherds of imported Mediterranean
pottery, then termed "Tintagel ware." Much of the pottery came from wine and
oil containers datable to the fifth to seventh centuries, leading Radford
to interpret this settlement as a Celtic monastery. Subsequent excavations
at Tintagel have revealed more structures and pottery, though alternative
interpretations--a princely stronghold, an active trading post--have recently
overshadowed the monastic model (Thomas 1993).
Tintagel's impressive commercial activity showed that Britain
was not isolated in the sub- Roman period. On the contrary, Britain seems
to have opened up new trade relations with Gaul, North Africa, and the eastern
Mediterranean in which British commodities (most likely tin and slaves) were
exchanged for luxury goods. "Tintagel ware" soon began to be identified from
pottery finds at other sites, and new excavations turned up more examples
along with imported glass and jewelry. The defended hilltop settlement at
Dinas Powys, near Cardiff in Glamorganshire, yielded an abundance of these
imports, even though its occupation area is quite small compared to Tintagel
and the sub-Roman hillforts (Alcock 1963). Leslie Alcock's excavation's at
Dinas Powys in the 1950s also revealed evidence of a thriving native metalworking
industry, perhaps controled by local rulers who exchanged goods for military
services (Alcock 1987).
Alcock also directed the much-publicized excavations at South
Cadbury hillfort in the late 1960s (Alcock 1972; Alcock et al.,
1995). Claimed by Tudor antiquarians to be King Arthur's "Camelot," this massive
hillfort rises 500 feet above the Somerset plains, its steep sides defended
by five massive ramparts enclosing a plateau of about 18 acres. South Cadbury
revealed a long sequence of activity extending from the Neolithic to Late
Saxon periods. Extensive fortifications--including stone walls with timber
fighting platforms and a sophisticated timber gateway--were made in the fifth
century AD, when a large (feasting?) hall dominated the plateau. Once again,
excavators found an abundance of imported pottery along with Late Roman coins
and Saxon brooches. While the much hoped for clues to the existence of Arthur
were not found at South Cadbury, Alcock did reveal a major sub-Roman settlement
that was perhaps the residence of a major British ruler.
Native hillforts were not the only form of defense for the sub-Roman
Britons. Recent excavation along Hadrian's Wall has revealed much fifth- and
sixth-century evidence, including new timber structures built at the Wall
forts (Dark 1992). At Birdoswald, for example, timber "halls" replaced two
Roman granaries (Wilmott et al. 1997), while at South Shields a new gateway
was constructed. Once thought to have been abandoned after 410, it now appears
that Hadrian's Wall continued to be used to defend local civilian populations
in the sub-Roman period. This may have been the case as well for the Saxon
Shore forts in the southeast. Both Portchester
show signs of lingering occupation, while the walls of the latter may have
sheltered a Christian church.
The strongest evidence--literary, epigraphic, and archaeological--for
Christian activity in sub-Roman Britain comes from Whithorn
in southwestern Scotland. Claimed by Bede to be the site of St. Ninian's fifth-century
monastery, Candida Casa, the area has yielded several Early Christian
memorial stones. Peter Hill's excavations in the 1980s revealed at least
two phases of Early Christian activity at Whithorn before it was taken by
the Vikings (Hill 1997). Fifth- and sixth-century features of the site include
small rectangular wattle buildings (one structure had lime-wash residue,
giving credence to Bede's "Shining House" description of Ninian's monastery),
a circular "oratory," a garden, remains of a mouldboard plough, broken "wine
glasses," and yet more imported pottery. Hill sees good reason to believe
that the sub-Roman settlement was indeed a monastery, with a surrounding
Christian community large enough to perhaps warrant the provision of a bishop
such as Ninian (from nearby Carlisle?).
Fourth-century ecclesiastical records do provide us with evidence
for British bishops associated with towns that were provincial capitals,
which means London, Lincoln, York,
and possibly Cirencester and Carlisle. Most Roman towns in Britain were given
major defensive circuits by the late fourth century, making their survival
into the fifth century likely (Snyder 1996). Some historians and archaeologists
believe that urban life--if not the towns themselves--was already disappearing
by the early fourth century, and thus sub-Roman Britain must have been completely
rural. Other scholars have seen signs of continuity between many Late Roman
towns and their medieval successors. Urban continuity has been argued for Bath, Canterbury,
Chester, Chichester, Cirencester, Exeter, Gloucester, Lincoln, London, Winchester,
Worcester, and York. At Verulamium (St. Albans), where the medieval town
grew up around the Saxon abbey outside of the Roman walls, archaeologists
found several fifth-century structures and a newly-laid waterpipe indicating
that a nearby Roman aqueduct was still providing for the town's sub-Roman
inhabitants. At Silchester, which did not become a medieval town, excavations
revealed that economic activity at the forum continued into the fifth century
(dated by coins and imported pottery and glass), while jewelry and an ogam
inscribed stone hint to sixth- century contacts with Irish settlers.
The most dynamic urban activity occured in the city of Wroxeter.
Philip Barker's meticulous excavations of the baths basilica site revealed
the constant repair and reconstruction of a Roman masonry structure into the
early fifth century (Barker et al. 1997). At that point, a large complex
of timber buildings was constructed on the site and lasted until the late
sixth century when they were carefully dismantled. Described by the excavator
as "the last classically inspired buildings in Britain" until the eighteenth
century, this complex included a two-storied winged house--perhaps with towers,
a verandah, and a central portico--smaller auxilliary buildings (one of stone),
and a strip of covered shops or possibly stables. More a villa than a public
building, it was perhaps the residence of "tyrant" like Vortigern who had
the resources to build himself "a kind of country mansion in the middle of
the city" with stables and houses for his retainers (Webster 1975, 117).
Sub-Roman Wroxeter and other archaeological discoveries are helping dispel
the myth of the Dark Ages in Britain. While the literary evidence for these
years may be sparse, the more we learn about writers like Patrick and Gildas
the more we see that they are connected to a literary tradition stretching
across Roman Europe and the Mediterranean. While Latin letters and Christian
bishops provide a continuity between sub-Roman Britain and its predecessor,
"Celtic" style monasticism and art, vernacular bardic poetry, and dynastic
tyrant/kings look forward to its distinctly medieval future. With or without
Arthur, fifth- and sixth-century Britain developed a more vibrant character
than its label "sub-Roman" would imply.
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Association for Byzantine Studies, 1982.
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Last updated: 2 June 2003