Constantine’s empire was disintegrating and his British forces were losing faith in him. Whether he knew it or not there were also serious attacks on Britain, which led to the Britons withdrawing their support from Constantine. Zosimus described them as ‘throwing off Roman rule and living independently, no longer subject to Roman law and reverting to their native customs and setting up their own administration as well as they could’. This indicated that they expelled the Roman administrators, which was to have serious consequences later.
Zosimus said that Honorius sent letters to the cities of Britain, bidding them to fend for themselves, which implies that they had appealed to him for help. Any attempt to help was now out of Constantine’s control. Honorius’s army advanced to Arles, defeated Gerontius’s forces who were besieging the city and forced Constantine to surrender. Constantine was executed and Gerontius escaped to Spain where some of his troops, hearing of his defeat, besieged his house.
Realizing there was no escape and yielding to the entreaties of his wife he beheaded her and committed suicide. This Gallic Empire had now been destroyed.
Honorius seemed to have made no attempt to bring Britain back under Roman control. He had no troops available to do this and was concerned with containing events in Gaul where the real power was in the control of the Burgundians and the Visigoths. In fact, Procopius, a sixth-century historian who was prefect of Constantinople during Justinian’s reign, said that the Romans were never able to recover Britain, which from then on remained on its own, subject to various usurpers (tyrants).
It would seem therefore that from AD 410 the Britons had to rely on their own precautions against any raiders. Direct Roman rule in Britain had ceased to exist, brought on by a succession of rebellions against the central authority. There was no withdrawal of Roman authority. Britain had gradually withdrawn from Rome.
Britain, on the extreme north-west of the Roman Empire, may never have been fully assumed into that empire possibly because the whole population have never been fully Romanized. Celtic tribal authority was allowed to continue when towns became civitas capitals. Britons in remote areas continued to follow their own way of life. It was in the towns and the villas that people had become most attracted to conditions that seemed to offer a better way of life.
Towns hoped that stout walls would protect them; their citizens might raise a militia or hire mercenaries. That this was possible for some towns is shown by a visit of Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, to Verulamium in AD 429. According to the Gallic cleric Constantius of Lyon, Germanus had been sent to Britain to counter the Pelagian heresy. This has been spread by Pelagius, a Briton, who decreed that man was responsible for his own actions and by his own free human will and God-given nature would determine his own salvation. This was in direct opposition to St Augustine’s view that man was utterly dependent on the divine will and the grace of God, because the frail nature of his being makes him unable to achieve grace and salvation by himself.
The Pelagian heresy gained a strong hold on the upper classes in Britain and it may have been this belief that helped them to take matters into their own hands for their defence – to exercise, in fact, free will. After Germanus’s arrival his preaching seemed to have checked further spread of these heretical opinions. He then visited the shrine of St Alban at Verulamium to hold an assembly, which suggests that the town then had some form of government to organize this. This is confirmed by the fact that he healed the daughter of a man having tribune power, that is, a man having military leadership in the Roman sense. Shortly after, Germanus won a victory over a raid by the Picts and the Scots, by leading the Britons into battle and urging them to cry ‘Alleluia’ at the moment of attack, an action which went back to the Celtic custom of shouting a battle cry when they attacked enemy forces. Constantius also states that Germanus made a second visit to Britain in AD 437 but, as he was involved in mediation in Amorica at that time, this visit seems unlikely.
Yet Saxon raids continued. The Yorkshire signal stations came under attack at least twice, Huntcliff and Goldborough being savagely destroyed. Hadrian’s Wall ceased to function as an effective barrier. Forts remained in use but each may have organized its own defence. The soldiers had always been paid in coinage sent from Rome that then filtered through the population as goods were bought outside the forts. Coins from Roman mints began to cease after about AD 402.
This cessation of money being sent from Rome or from the mints may have been because transporting coinage may have become too difficult and risky when crossing Gaul. Cash was also required elsewhere in the empire and Stilicho may just have stopped payments, believing it was a waste to send coinage to Britain.
Local mints did not supply coins either because of the lack of good metal or because of difficulties in production. Whatever the reason the lack of coins particularly affected the civilian settlements round the forts. These had an artificial economy kept going by the pay of the troops. When monetary contact ceased the inhabitants drifted away, leaving only a handful of people to occupy the forts for defence or shelter, hence the lack of settled communities round the forts. After AD 407 Britain existed on coins already in existence or on barter.
Military groups would probably seize supplies where they could. Army units would hold together for security and companionship but any military force under direct Roman military control was disintegrating.
The situation may have resembled that described in Noricum by Eugippius in The Life of St Severinus during the AD 470s. When coinage ceased to arrive, military units disbanded and left their posts. A neighbouring king then crossed the Danube and took over military control of the Romanized towns and the population, organizing them into defensive groups. If the same thing happened in Britain when coinage did not arrive, soldiers would leave their posts. Towns and villa owners in Britain may then have hired soldiers for protection as happened in other parts of the now disintegrating empire. These may not have been regular Roman troops. Instead troops in legions and auxiliary forces were being increasingly replaced by barbarians or by mercenaries, who were employed as foederati (warriors from barbarian tribes who fought in exchange for a subsidy). These may not have been paid but have received grants of land in return for military service.
Some form of town life probably continued in most cities. London and the former coloniae – York, Gloucester, Lincoln, Colchester – have remained as towns, while some forts such as Chester and Exeter were now civilian towns. Even smaller towns such as Dorchester-on-Thames and Catterick survived. Some did not.
Wroxeter and Silchester were abandoned and Verulamium moved its site to centre on the shrine of St Alban. What form of town life remained is uncertain. Deposits of dark earth in towns such as Canterbury, Gloucester, Lincoln and Winchester have been suggested to be evidence of farming in the centre of what was once a thriving urban area. These patches may, however, be evidence of collapsed buildings as they are full of pottery, bone and charcoal. Refugees fleeing into the towns would have made camp in any abandoned buildings, moving on when conditions became too disgusting, a feature noted in towns that have been partially destroyed in recent centuries. In Cirencester, debris analysed in the amphitheatre suggested that people had once gathered there for shelter. In London the great basilica had been abandoned; the quays, not maintained, had crumbled. The city, once the largest north of the Alps, had gradually contracted and, although some people lived in its ruins, excavations have proved that the Saxons preferred to live to the west of the city in what is now the Aldwych and Covent Garden areas.
Gildas suggested that it was not only town life that had disintegrated. Potential conflict of interest was based on the defence of food supplies, for large-scale agriculture had been abandoned: ‘So the Britons began to attack each other and in their efforts to seize some food dipped their hands into the blood of their fellow countrymen. Domestic turmoil worsened, foreign disasters resulting in no food except that which could be obtained by hunting.’
Villa owners continued to work their land as and where they could. Some owners probably moved to what they thought was the safety of the towns. Others continued to live in crumbling buildings. Rooms, which once were highly decorated to the pride of their owners, were now used for other purposes – a corn drier was put in a bath wing at Atworth (Wiltshire), fires were lit on the floors of the living rooms at Ditchley (Oxfordshire). At Lufton (Somerset) a hearth was built on a fine mosaic and an oven was carved into a floor in another room. The collapse of the Witcombe villa can be noted by roof tiles used as a floor and fires being lit on mosaic floors. There was now no satisfaction in keeping up a Roman lifestyle. Either their owners had given up the effort or squatters had taken what shelter they could. Life was now a struggle for existence.