An Arthurian warrior. Arthur was the first
Romano-British war leader to use mounted warriors against the invading Saxons.
Lightly armed, carrying a small round shield and with a cavalry lance, these
horsemen were the prototype of the later medieval armoured knights.
The defences of Cadbury Camp. The steep ram- parts
would have been additionally strengthened by having massive wooden defences
built onto them, making them virtually impassable.
Night of the Long Knives. Vortigern, usurper of
Britain, called the leaders of both Celtic and Roman factions to meet peacefully
with the Saxons at Stonehenge. At the start of the council the Saxons rose up
and massacred the Britons.
The mystery cults introduced by Rome still survived vestigially,
side by side with vigorous native cults of gods who were the direct ancestors
of some British royal families, and whose exploits were a matter off a milial
pride in the relation of poetic genealogies.
These factors show that life – at least on the surface –
continued much as it had always done in Britain. However, in areas like Wales,
where Roman rule had always been most tenuous, a new generation of British
chieftains was beginning to assert itself. Many were descendants of tribes
which had been planted by Roman overlords along the old border country between
Britain and the Pictish tribes (in much the same manner as Cromwell planted
Presbyterian Scots in Northern Ireland in the seventeenth century). There they
had grown strong, and some, like the famous Cunedda, had migrated to Wales,
where they drove out the few settlements of Irish pirates and settled there,
firmly entrenched behind the natural defence of mountain ranges like Snowdonia.
Once these petty kings understood that contact with Rome was
finally severed, they began to come down from their mountain fastnesses and
establish territories in the Midlands.
The resulting mayhem caused a ripple of panic which spread
rapidly throughout the whole province. It was this which, together with the
steady influx of the Picts and continued raids from Ireland, may have prompted the
leaders of the Romano- British faction to call for help from a Gaulish
magistrate and general named Aetius, whom Gildas calls ‘Agitus’. We learn of
this from one of the few surviving sources of information we possess for this
period. It comes in the writing of the British monk, Gildas, whose chronicle De
Excidio Britonum (‘The Ruin of Britain’) is really a long diatribe against
various native ‘tyrants’ – one of whom, though unnamed, is probably Arthur –
and the general state of decay and ungodliness then rife in the island. The
letter to Aetius begins thus:
To Agitus, thrice consul, the groans of the British. . ..
The barbarians push us back to the sea; the sea throws us back to the
barbarians; thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.
But Aetius was unable to help. Under his not-inconsiderable
leadership, the Gaulish Roman forces had been able to consolidate sufficiently
to unite the warring tribes into a loose-knit confederacy which later drove
back Atilla’s Huns. But this left him no opportunity to respond to ‘the groans
of the British’ and the crumbling administration was left to organise its own
defence against both the northern barbarians and the fast-growing strength of
the native British tribes.
At is at this point that the first among a number of more or
less discernible characters emerges from the darkness of post-Roman- Britain.
This is the man usually known by the name Vortigern (though in fact this name
may mean no more than chieftain) who bore a British name but claimed Roman
parentage. His wife is believed to have been the daughter of the great Magnus
Maximus (who proclaimed himself emperor in 383 and marched on Rome). Vortigern
may also have been able to claim British descent, since he is later shown as (unsuccessfully)
attempting to unite the opposing Roman and British factions against their
common enemies from the north and west. Certainly by 441-2 he held high office
among the administrative hierarchy, and when the still very Romanised nobility
looked to Roman inspiration to aid them Vortigern seems to have been able to
fit the bill.
At any rate, when no response was forthcoming from Gaul (it
may have been Vortigern who sent the letter to Aetius) the Britons were forced
to take action for themselves. They succeeded, possibly under the leadership of
Vortigern, in putting an end for a time to the worst of the Irish raids, and in
containing the Picts beyond the Wall. But this was a state which could not
last, and the recurrent threat of attack from the native rulers of Britain was
a continual nagging thorn in the side of the Roman administration.
It should be understood that Vortigern was almost certainly
not a king in the general sense of the word, although he is called this by
later writers who saw him as a paramount figure among the numerous petty rulers
of the time. Like Ambrosius and Arthur, who followed him, he was an able
administrator and leader of men who did his best to restore some semblance of order
to his ravaged land.
Unfortunately, history has not served him well, and he is
remembered as at worst a tyrant and at best a fool whose blunder caused the
final breakdown of all that remained of Roman rule in Britain.
Whether this image is a true one is no longer easy to say
with any certainty. For what happened next in the history of the war-torn
island is crucial and at Vortigern’s door, one way or the other, the blame must
When the ‘call for help’ sent to Aetius elicited no
response, Vortigern (or someone with similar responsibilities and authority)
called in a group of Saxon federati to help. It is possible that these were
already settled in part of southern Britain (probably Kent) or that they were a
remnant of one of the old Roman legions recruited in Europe years before.
Gildas as well as other sources speaks of three shiploads of men under the
leadership of a chieftain named Hengist (‘Son of Wodan, “God forbid!”
‘) who were given lands in Kent and Essex as a reward for their services.
Initially, at least, they were active in aiding the Britons
against the Picts, but having once seen the richness of the country they had
come to defend (compared with their own sparse holdings along the coast of what
is now Holland) they sought lands in which to settle more permanently.
Based on the evidence of Gildas, repeated in Nennius and
Bede, we are able to establish a date ofc. 443-4 for the initial advent of Saxon
settlers -though these were still confined to the areas ‘gifted’ to them by
Vortigern or his like. By 449 they were well established along the western
seaboard and Nennius tells us they had taken the Isle of Thanet and were
seeking still larger holdings. Nennius also tells us that Hengist saw that he
had only simple ‘savages’ to deal with (though the boot could well be said to
be on the other foot) and brought another sixteen shiploads (keels) of men to
Britain, along with his daughter, with whom Vortigern conveniently ‘fell in
love’. In fact, it was probably an arranged deal sealed over several pots of
wine. Octa and Ebissa, Hengist’s cousins, were given the whole area beyond the
Wall, which they would have to secure for themselves, and this seems to have
opened the way to more wide- spread colonization. The Saxons promptly took the
Orkneys and attacked the Picts from the north, effectively calling a halt to
their attack on Britain for some time to come.
However, it seemed that by inviting these men from across
the sea the British administration had replaced one menace with another. As
Bede’s account puts it:
It was not long before such hoards of these alien people
vied together to crowd into the island that the natives who had invited them
began to live in terror. Then all of a sudden the Angles made an alliance with
the Picts, whom by this time they had driven some distance away, and began to
turn their arms against their allies. They began by demanding a greater supply
of provisions; then, seeking to provoke a quarrel, threatened that unless
larger supplies were forthcoming, they would ravage the whole island.
When they did not get what they wanted (one suspects that
Vortigern’s sup- porters baulked at the idea of giving anything more away)
‘they were not slow to carry out their threat’.
In desperation, with his military position weakened and his
popularity waning, Vortigern sought to make a new treaty with his ‘allies’. A gathering
was arranged at which a hundred British leaders were to meet a similar number
of Saxon nobles. Somehow, Vortigern persuaded them to come unarmed as a gesture
of good faith; he himself had by then agreed to marry Hengist’s daughter. The
result was the terrible episode known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, in
which the Saxons, having hidden knives in their boots, at a given signal rose
up and massacred the Britons, presumably before Vortigern’s horrified gaze.
He himself managed to escape and, pursued by both Saxons and
Britons, fled to Wales where he eventually met his death. With his going, any
semblance of organisation crumbled almost to nothing. The Saxons were left to
run free, marauding through the length and breadth of the land, only a few of
the larger fortified towns being able to withstand their onslaught, hurriedly
throwing up new defences and recruiting militia from the local areas. By 435
things looked bleak enough to merit the first entry in the Annates Cambriae –
‘days as dark as night’.