Vortigern, Hengist, and 446 and all that

Vortigern’s deal with Hengist – you give me soldiers to fight my enemies and I’ll give you Thanet to settle in – was not the crazy and disastrous choice Gildas has us believe. In NW Europe in the 440s, such deals were normal.

As warlord of SE Britannia, Vortigern had no better choice. Aetius, Rome’s powerful man in western Europe, had done just such a deal with the Alans in 440-442 and another with the Burgundians in 443. A few years later he made a similar agreement with Attila the Hun.

In 446, Rome under Aetius was fighting on three fronts – NW Iberia, Brittany, and Belgium. He hadn’t got men to spare for Britain. Rome didn’t have an army other than its foederati, hired warriors like the Alans – and Hengist. Aetius could even have advocated Hengist to Vortigern as an ally. Rome-lover Gildas would not have published that even if he knew it to be true.

Attila the Hun changed sides in 451 and attacked Gaul. Hengist followed Attila’s example, expanding his power in Britain by fair means and foul at Vortigern’s expense.

However, the Historia Britonnum records that Vortigern’s son Vortimer regained all of Kent. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of course does not mention this, but its dates of what is in there suggest that Vortimer’s successes were in the 460s, his final driving of the Saxons out of Kent most likely happening in c465-468. So the results of Vortigern’s deal in 446 were not perdurable; it was events after 468 that came to gradually determine the future of what, centuries later, would be England.

In symbolic language typical of the culture of fifth century Britons, it is reported that when he died, five years after his last victory, Vortimer instructed that his head be displayed facing the ocean at Richborough; and that this was not done. Decoded, the meaning is, at minimum, that the Saxons came back: Vortimer’s successes, alas, were also ephemeral. His severed head should have been a talisman threatening any Saxon who dared to attack Kent, but it (symbolically), or more literally the Kentish defences militarily, was inadequate.

Only in outline is the next stage of British history clear. The exact political structure is not known, but it is almost safe to say that eastern coastal districts remained under Anglo-Saxon control from Deira (East Yorkshire) south as far as East Anglia, and probably Essex too. In 473, Saxons were able to slaughter citizens and carry off booty in the largest Saxon raid of the entire fifth century. After that calamity, Ambrosius Aurelianus, presumably Governor of Britannia Prima, perhaps a descendant of the Roman Emperor Aurelianus (270-275), became chief warlord of southern Britain, and led the Britons valiantly against the Saxons, with some measure both of unity and of success.

The presence of a line of Ambrs- place-names running north-east from Amersham suggests that he held a line of defence there against English attackers coming from Essex and East Anglia. The northern Home Counties were successfully defended and became the Kingdom of Calchfynydd (meaning: Chalk Hills i.e. Chliterns).

Two other Ambrs on the South Downs in west Sussex (Ambersham near Midhurst and Amberley to the north of Arundel) and one in Kent (guarding the Medway crossing somewhere near Maidstone) suggest that he also fought effectively in that area. In this context it is significant that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle identifies battles in Sussex in 477, 485, and 490. It implies that the Saxon side won, though not decisively in 477; silently hints at the probability that they lost in 485; and claims a decisive victory in 490.

490 (or possibly early 491) of course was also the year of the famous British victory at Mount Badon, attributed to King Arthur. Gildas implies that there was when he wrote his “Ruin and Conquest of Britain” (c530) an agreed frontier between the Britons and “our enemies in the east”. It is credible to suppose that the fall of the fort of Pevensey resulted in this frontier being negotiated in c491 as a cease-fire line with Sussex on the Saxon side and Calchfynydd on the Britons’ side.

One can only speculate about the possibility of a Briton-ruled salient between the North Downs and the Thames. The place-name Eccles is elsewhere associated with sixth-century Christian presence under Briton control; there is an Eccles north of Maidstone. Other Christian-suggestive place-names further west in this putative salient include Esher, Godstone, and Godalming.

In any case, the frontier kept its stability for 60 years. But it began to frazzle about 550; and the definitive English conquest of Britain came in the 570s when four calamitous battles (571, Bedford; 577, Dyrham, above Bath; 578, York; and 580, Weedon Bec, Northants) pulled many rich lands of what was once Britannia into the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Before 570, Britain was an essentially Celtic-ruled island, despite the presence of English-ruled kingdoms around the eastern and southern coasts. After 580, whatever remained under Celtic control would never again be more than a “Celtic fringe”. The fruits of battle victories in the fifth century were ever precarious and temporary; it was those Angle and Saxon victories in the 570s that were decisive, setting Britain on the never-reversed course for its English future.

 

 

 

 

 

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Vortigern: Regional Warlord, Not Britannia-Wide

Vortigern is typically thought of as ruler of all of (sub) Roman Britain through the middle half the fifth century. In reality, this is most implausible. When the Roman Legions left in 409, Britain has been divided into four Provinces for over a century; there is no evidence behind the unification assumption.

As Roman power weakened, prevalent conditions in western Europe pulled towards small kingdoms. Only from the seventh century onwards did Britain’s small kingdoms start to habitually become overrun by bigger ones.

It is surely significant that historical evidence linked to Vortigern and his son Vortimer identifies several battles against Saxons in Kent, one of which resulted in a retreat to London, concessions to Saxon control (at different times) of Thanet, all of Kent, and Sussex and Essex, and a victory over Britonnic rival Ambrosius at Wallop in Hampshire; but that the only other recorded location of either political or military activity for Vortigern or Vortimer is Belgium, where, having driven the Saxons out of Britain completely, Vortimer arrived with 10,000 men and was disastrously defeated. (This expedition in c468 makes Vortimer, I suggest, the prime candidate for the mysterious Riothamus, “Thames king”.)

This geographical pattern is indicative of the area controlled by Vortigern having been the Province of Maxima Caesariensis. There is room for argument about that Province’s exact boundaries – I argue that the northern boundary was close to that of present-day Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire and thence to the Wash, see my post of 31st March 2013 on “Gildas’s 28 Cities”, [1] – but certainly the major part of the Province was all the parts of Britain just mentioned.

Another sign pointing in the same direction is that although Vortigern won the Battle of Wallop in 428, the record says he remained afraid of Ambrosius. This only makes coherent sense if Ambrosius had a power base elsewhere in Britain than Vortigern’s and substantial enough for him to be a threat to Vortigern.

Nothing is directly known about this Ambrosius. What is known is that according to Gildas, half a century later another Ambrosius, Ambrosius Aurelianus, became a powerful leader somewhere in Britain; and that at the time of Gildas’s writing, c530, his grandson Cynan was a king in western Britain. Combining the works of Gildas and Taliesin enables Cynan’s kingdom to be identified as Powys, which was the successor state to the Roman civitas (city-district) centred on Wroxeter. It approximately corresponded to Staffordshire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Montgomeryshire, and Radnorshire. Another scion of this family prominent in the historical record is the sixth century Christian leader Pol Aurelian, who studied at St. Illtyd’s seminary at Llan Illtyd Fawr (now Glamorgan; then in the Kingdom of Gwent), strengthened the structure of the Old Church at Glastonbury Abbey, and founded the monastery at Leon, Brittany, where he became known as St. Pol de Leon. Considering this geographical provenance in his lineage, it is a reasonable possibility that the Ambrosius who was a forbear of these Aurelians and a potential threat to Vortigern was a, perhaps the primary, ruler in western Britannia, i.e. of the Province of Britannia Prima. Roman Britannia Prima included everything from the civitas of Wroxeter and those of Cirencester, Ilchester, and Dorchester, westwards.

Place names derived from Ambrosius[2] are suggestive of Ambrosius Aurelianus’s spheres of governance and of combat. Several are in Britannia Prima: one in SE Wales; others in the southeast of the province – Worcestershire, and Amberley near Stroud. One, Amesbury, is just on the Maxima side of the provincial boundary which ran across Salisbury Plain. These scattered ‘Ambros’ place names are consistent with the supposition that Ambrosius’s powerbase was the Aurelian heartland of Britannia Prima.

Several other Ambros- names form a line running more-or-less SW to NE from Amersham. By the time Ambrosius Aurelianus came to power (in 479 according to one of the Irish annals), most of the former Province of Maxima Caesariensis had passed into Saxon control. The exceptions were the Silchester civitas (approximately north Hampshire and pre-1974 Berkshire), which emerges into post-Roman history as the ambiguously Saxo-Britonnic kingdom of the Gewissae – cf my identifying the true location of Netley and Cerdic’s earliest conquests on the north bank of the Thames near Oxford in my post of 7th June 2014 ; and the civitas-becoming-kingdom of the tribe known to the Romans as the Catuvellauni[3].

This kingdom is known later on as Calchfynydd in Welsh, and as Cilternsaetna in Anglian English, its name recorded in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of c672; both words denote ‘the people of the chalk hills’, i.e. the Chilterns. It was a substantial kingdom ruled by Britonnic kings until it was defeated at the Battle of Bedford in 571; it will have been reduced to at most a rump by the further defeat in 580 at Bannaventa (the Roman walled town near Weedon Bec in Northamptonshire) when King Cadog was slain.

It may be that Ambrosius Aurelianus and these two Britonnic kingdoms worked together in the 480s to contain Anglo-Saxon expansion. The Ambros place-names are along what could well have been the western edge of the English kingdoms of Essex (which included London and can be presumed to have also included what later became Middlesex) and East Anglia, which is suggestive of a line of defence and boundary between those English-controlled territories and Calchfynydd, a boundary which Ambrosius Aurelianus successfully held militarily; a boundary in due course agreed by treaty and respected for the first 70 years of the sixth century.[4]

Besides western Britannia being Aurelian territory and not Vortigern’s, there is also a good indication that another of the four Provinces was not under Vortigern’s suzerainty. There are king-list genealogies in the text Bonedd y Gwyr Gogledd (the Descent of the Men of the North) for various successor kingdoms in what in the fourth century had been Britannia Secunda, the northern Province which included everywhere between Hadrian’s Wall and the Trent except East Yorkshire and (probably) Nottinghamshire. They are all headed by Coel Hen (the king immortalised in nursery rhyme as Old King Cole) and Keneu. The inference is that for a few decades after 409 those two kings held some degree of sovereignty over the whole Province, before kingdoms such as Rheged (based at Carlisle) and Elmet (based at York) became fully separated and de-facto autonomous. None of these genealogies mention Vortigern.

The remaining Province was the relatively small Flavia Caesariensis, which I argue [28 Cities] approximated to East Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, easternmost parts of Staffordshire and Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Lincolnshire. There is brooch evidence of early Anglian warrior presence within this area, but no battles recorded by either Britonnic or Anglo-Saxon sources. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the hypothesis that the Province passed peacefully into Angle control, maybe indeed as early as before 440[5], has to be considered credible. The lack of disruption to agricultural practises shown by archaeological exploration at Hessle in East Yorkshire supports the peaceful transition hypothesis.

As has often been said, an absence of evidence is not convincing evidence of absence, least of all in a period as thin on evidence of anything as the fifth century. Nevertheless, three important patterns – the record of Vortigern’s battles and political actions across one Province, Maxima Caesariensis; the absence of evidence of any activities by him in Britannia’s other three civilian Provinces; and the presence of evidence in two of those Provinces of other men in control, and the hint, at least, of Saxon control in the third – point in one direction only. The rational inference is that Vortigern was supreme ruler – in the Roman structure the de-facto Provincial Governor – of Maxima Caesariensis, and only of Maxima Caesariensis.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] My analysis puts East Anglia and the Fens in Maxima. I know of no reason to suppose that Vortigern’s rule extended to those two civitates; it may be that they became effectively Anglo-Saxon ruled within a generation of thedeparture of the Legions.

[2] See Morris, The Age of Arthur, map p101.

[3] Or at any rate, most of it. The Roman civitas capital St. Albans and the nearby town of Hertford may have become Anglicised long before the rest of the civitas’s territory including Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and part of Oxfordshire fell under Anglian rule.

[4] Morris’s map also shows three Ambros place-names in Sussex and one in Kent. These do not fit tidily into any theory. Perhaps Ambrosius Aurelianus won battles in those areas.

[5] The Gallic Chronicle of c441 said that Britannia had ‘passed into the hands of the Saxons’. This date is thorny for historians because of Vortigern’s granting rule over Thanet to the Saxon Hengist, after Aetius’s failure to send troops to his aid in 446. That event was presented both by Gildas and by Bede, drawing on Kentish sources, as momentous, not because Saxon warriors like Hengist helping a ruler of Britons was new – they’d been doing so for a century or two – but because the concession of Thanet was seen as the first bit of Anglo-Saxon rule over part of what was to become England, and the thin end of a wedge: thirty years later, all of SE England was under Saxon rule.

Maybe, though, 446 was the watershed “Coming of the Saxons” ONLY in the south-eastern districts ruled by Vortigern. Beyond doubt the Chronicle’s statement was an exaggeration: neither the documentary nor the archaeological evidence suggests any areas of Anglo-Saxon control in two of Britain’s four Provinces at that time, Britannia Prima and Britannia Secunda.

Equally though, I know of no reason to suspect the highly-respected Chronicler of writing nonsense. The region most likely to have been already under Anglo-Saxon control by 440 is the eastern coastal counties from East Yorkshire through Lincolnshire to the Peterborough area and East Anglia, plus lands on either side of the lower Trent, which was the Angles’ original ‘Mierce’ (meaning: borderland, c.f. modern German maerchenland), so named long before ‘Mercia’ came to mean a large Midland kingdom. This region includes West Stow (near Bury St Edmunds), the site of a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village which is indicated to have been in that location in 440; it also includes Hessle. Two-thirds of it had been in Flavia Province.

How Roman Britain Became England

How Britannia Became English

Educated British people are generally aware that for centuries up until about 400CE, England and Wales south of Hadrian’s Wall was Roman Britain, or Britannia, and that in the following centuries it fell into the hands of the Anglo-Saxons. What is much less well grasped is how that transition took place, or when.

The first key to a clearer understanding of that process is the political structure of Roman Britain in 400. Britain was divided into four distinct Provinces, and history took fundamentally different course in each of them over the quarter-millennium after the Roman legions evacuated in 409.

Each Province in turn was comprised of a number of civitates, districts for local governance, about the size of two counties. The seminal event of 409 was that the leaders of the civitates rebelled, demanding freedom from the burden of Roman taxation. The Roman Emperor Honorius could not spare troops to put down the rebellion, because the Empire was hard-pressed by Germanic invaders from across the Rhine frontier into Gaul (France and the Rhineland). So he withdrew his legions from Britain and told the civitates to defend themselves.

Twice afterwards, in 418 and in 429, Rome sent forces to Britain to aid Roman Britons fighting against raiders from beyond its borders, with some successful effect; but when aid was asked for again in 446, the Roman General Aetius ignored the request, again essentially because his forces were already stretched beyond capacity trying to defend Gaul.

 

Britannia Secunda

In two of the Provinces, Britannia Prima (Wales and the West), and Britannia Secunda (the North), the civitates did see to their own defences thoroughly and effectively, and with little or no contribution from foreigners. Military logistics of the fifth century were favourable for autonomous governance units the size of a civitas.

The four civitates of Britannia Secunda, plus tribal lands that had been divided from them by Hadrian’s Wall with military but not sociological logic,morphed over the following century into three kingdoms, all of which feature strongly in later history: Rheged (approximately Ayrshire, Dumfries-and-Galloway, Cumbria, and maybe Lancashire); Gododdin (Lothian, the Borders, Northumberland and Durham); and Elmet (North, West, and South Yorkshire, the Derwent valley of Derbyshire, and probably northern Nottinghamshire north of Sherwood). Elmet appears to have combined the small civitas of York with the much larger one surrounding it whose Roman city was Aldborough. All three kingdoms were ruled by successions of Roman British, i.e. Celtic, kings. Britain’s most famous bard Taliesin wrote poems in praise of two of these kings, Urien of Rheged and Gwallawg of Elmet, in the third quarter of the sixth century. Urien temporarily extended Rheged’s boundaries eastwards across north Yorkshire at that time.

Undoubtedly, for well over a century after the departure of the Roman legions, the territory that had been Britannia Secunda remained in the control of kings who were Celtic British by tribe and culture, influenced by a slowly fading Romanised past. But in approximately 547, the English warrior-king Ida disturbed the far north by occupying and fortifying Bamburgh and conquering a coastal part of the Gododdin kingdom as his Kingdom of Bernicia. This initiated a half-century of skirmish warfare, highlighted by the British defenders calling their English enemy leader in the 570s “Fflamdwyn”, “Fire-Setter”. As of 580, the English had been driven out of all except their coastal fortress.

The tide turned, though, and over the next fifteen years or so a new kingdom of Northumbria, formed by a union of Deira (East Yorkshire, see below) and Bernicia, conquered most of Britannia Secunda east of the Pennines. York fell in 581; Catraeth (Maiden Castle near Catterick), famously, probably in the 590s. Rheged remained independent until 633, and culturally, especially religiously, influenced its English-speaking neighbour either side of 620, when Rum was king of Rheged and Edwin of Northumbria. In 633, however, the male line of Rheged’s dynasty failed and the kingdom merged with Northumbria by royal marriage of Rheged’s daughter.

 

Britannia Prima

Looking next at Britannia Prima, the Roman Province south of the Mersey and west of a line from the Staffordshire Moorlands to the Hampshire Avon and Bournemouth, as in Secunda, the civitates morphed into kingdoms, and their considerable sense of British cultural unity did not translate into any political unity. On the contrary, small-scale inter-kingdom fighting became normal. It would be misleading to call western Britain “Roman Britain” any more by the mid-sixth century, these former civitates that were fully independent and squabbling kingdoms with no governance links beyond their borders and no Roman empire to link to anyway, but the term “sub-Roman” can be used with fair justification, for their elite were Romanised in cultural style, wrote (when they did) in Latin, and kept up strong trade links to Byzantium.

There is evidence of several areas near the western coast becoming conquered or heavily influenced by Irish intruders. There is none of any area that had been part of Britannia Prima coming under English control prior to 577. The Great Raid of 473 broke into the Cirencester civitas; in 490 King Arthur of Lindinis (mostly Somerset) won a famous victory over English invaders at the Battle of the Badonic Hill, i.e. the hill in the small Spa civitas of Bath; for the next eighty years, the kings of western Britain were at peace with their English neighbours.

But in 577 the agriculturally rich kingdom of the people known to the Romans as the Dobunni was lost at the Battle of Dyrham. Its area, covering all of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire east of the Severn, West Midlands County, and western parts of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, plus the petty kingdom that had been the Spa civitas for Bath, became the English kingdom of the Hwicce (whose name is remembered by place-names such as Wychavon, Wychwood, and Bromwich). Very slowly, more territory came under English rule in the next one and a half centuries or so, with notable English battle victories at Chester in 611, Pengwern (?Shrewsbury; in ?634), Bradford-on-Avon in 652, Penselwood in south-east Somerset (?South Cadbury, a.k.a. Camelot) in 658, and Somerton in 733. However, the Westcountry west of the Parrett, western Herefordshire and Wales remained under the rule of British kings into at least the ninth century.

 

Flavia Caesariensis

By contrast, in the Province of Flavia Caesariensis, which comprised approximately East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, a little of eastern Warwickshire, and parts of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, such little evidence as there is is consistent with a wholly peaceful transition from Roman to English rule. There are not even signs of a short period of Celtic British independent kingships in-between, except in western Derbyshire where the recording in 676 of a semi-independent Mercian territory of Pecsaetna[i] attests to a territory around the Peak – a Peak district, the successor state to the small Roman Spa civitas of Buxton – that was not settled by English people.

Documentary evidence is only that of absence. Both British and English sources enthusiastically recorded battles – the English, only ones they won. Yet none are recorded in this Province. It is apparent from Bede, however, that these areas were all under English rule from long before the eighth century. East Yorkshire was the English kingdom of Deira since well before 547. Lindsey was an English kingdom since the fifth century. Leicestershire and English settlements close to the Trent were known as the Mierce (meaning Borderland, cognate with modern German maerchenland and English ‘marches’), later Mercia. Bede referred to North and South Mercia, divided by the Trent. Archaeological evidence from excavations near Hessle in East Yorkshire supports the view that the transition in Flavia was peaceful. The Roman city of Lincoln seems to have ceased to function within a few decades of 409.

 

Maxima Caesariensis

The story of the remaining Province, Maxima Caesariensis, the south and east of the island, is very different. Here, there was warfare from the mid-fifth century onwards. Here, there was destruction of Roman cities and slaughter in the streets, imprecisely and sorrowfully recorded on the British side by Gildas and occasionally gleefully and with variable reliability in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Here, the course of history was affected by diplomatic marriages and savage treachery. English warriors were employed as mercenaries under Roman command, and they remained after 409, soon becoming dominant forces in some civitates – Winchester’s, probably, on the archaeological record; Kent, famously by treaty between the British ruler Vortigern and the English warrior-commander Hengist, in about 450; Essex and Sussex (which included most of Middlesex and of Surrey respectively), reported to have been as ransom for Vortigern after his capture, possibly in or soon after 470.

Nennius records that Vortigern came to power in 430.[ii] Power to what extent? The battles and political dealings attributed to him involve Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. De-facto Governor (hence Gildas’s title for him ‘tyrannus’, i.e. ‘non-legitimate ruler’) of MaximaCaesariensis Province would be the answer that best fits the geographical record. Whether he could exercise any influence in Britannia Prima can only be speculated.

Vortigern’s son Vortimer won a battle against Hengist at a location called by the British Set Thirbagail, and by the English Aylesford, which is on the Medway near Maidstone, recorded by both sides: in Nennius, chapter 44; and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for 455CE. The battle next recorded in chapter 44 of Nennius, at which the Saxons were defeated and “fled to their ships”, may likewise be the same as the one recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 465.

Alas for Britain, Vortimer then took his army across the channel to help the struggling Roman Empire in Gaul, where in 470 they were wiped out in Burgundy (c.f. comparable events in 1940), or anyway disappeared from the record. Vortigern regained power, but was displaced by Ambrosius in or before 479 following the disastrous Saxon raid across southern Britain in 479.

During the fifth century, the civitas of the Iceni, in Norfolk and Suffolk, and the one whose Roman city was Water Newton near Peterborough, which later became the kingdoms of the Gyrwas covering approximately Cambridgeshire and Holland, and perhaps Kesteven, also came within the arc of English rule from Christchurch to Beverley which Gildas refers to as “our enemies in the east”. One Roman source says Britain “had passed into the hands of the Saxons” by the early 440s. He may have meant these eastern civitates plus the Flavia Province.

Historians do not believe that the battles which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says were fought by the Gewissae (later known as the West Saxons and then Wessex) ever occurred. But the date for the founding of their kingdom, 495, may be genuine. It is consistent with archaeological evidence of late-fifth century English settlements at Abingdon and at Dorchester-on-Thames. It is well known that the first kings of the Gewissae, Cedric and Cynric, had British and part-Irish names, and it is possible that these men were British rulers of the Silchester civitas which chose from that time to rely on English warriors for its defence.

Thus it appears that by the start of the sixth century all of Maxima Caesariensis was under English rule, except for the large civitas whose Roman capital was St. Albans, which included Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and eastern Oxfordshire. This civitas, though ceasing to be governed from and maybe not controlling St. Albans, became the British kingdom of Calchfynydd. This name means ‘chalk hills’ and appears in English translation in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of 672 as the tributary kingdom of the ‘Ciltern-saetna’, the people who live in the Chilterns (the chalk hills). Calchfynydd remained British until it lost the Battle of Bedford in 571 and forfeited the fortresses of Aylesbury, Benson (a military site also today, the RAF base on the left bank of the Thames in mid-Oxfordshire), and Eynsham (NW of Oxford and close to the Calchfynydd-Dobunnic border). The remnant of Calchfynydd, basically Northamptonshire, may have come effectively under English conquest when they killed King Cadog at Bannaventa (the Roman town near Weedon Bec) in 580.

 

The Non-Uniform Process of Anglicisation

This brief survey shows that the Anglicisation of Britannia was neither a uniform process of conquest, nor a uniform peaceful transition. Rather, there were four distinct stories, substantially but not precisely coterminous with the four prior Roman provinces, each story radically different in time and in process from the others. It is these contrasts that are the primary cause of confusion about how and when Britannia became English and the running disputation as to whether the change was essentially a conquest or a peaceful transition.

In the centre-east of Britannia, one Roman Province and a couple of adjacent civitates became English-ruled within the first generation after the Roman legions departed in 409, without any recorded warfare – quite possibly by the voluntary choice of their first sub-Roman rulers. Most of another Province, in the south-east, became English through force of arms in the thrust and counter-thrust of warfare during the second half of the fifth century. A third Province, in the north, became English through political and military power over the years 581-633. Parts of the fourth, the western, Province plus an adjacent civitas from the south-east (Calchfynydd) were conquered piecemeal over nearly three centuries (from 571 to 838), but other parts (Wales and Cornwall) never became incorporated into Anglo-Saxon England.

Thus by 500 a considerable chunk of eastern and south-eastern Britain was under English rule, the area behind the coast from Bournemouth to Beverley, divided among a dozen young kingdoms; but the bulk of the country – all of the north, all of the west, and the centre as far east as Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire – was comprised of sub-Roman Celtic-British kingdoms. This was still the geographical reality in 570.

During the next eleven years English kings conquered British territories equivalent to about nine counties, mostly in the Midlands. But in 582, even after these losses, all the regions west of the Pennines, the Severn and Selwood Forest remained under British control, and there was little further change in the following half-century. Only after the early 630s, with Powys’s loss of Pengwern, the defeat of Cadwallon of Gwynedd after his brief conquest of Northumbria, and the merger of Rheged into Northumbria, can it be said that English kings ruled over most of what was to become England.

The exceptions, lands outwith English control beyond the 630s, were Ergyng (the part of modern England south and west of the Severn), ruled by a British king known to the Mercians as Merewalh (which means ‘illustrious Welshman’), Lindinis (Somerset, western Wiltshire, northern Dorset and northern Devon), and most of Kernow (Cornwall and south Devon). Some of these areas remained under Celtic British rule for centuries; Cornwall into the tenth century.

 

Plenty of people publish on the internet, or in a few cases in books, their discoveries of aspects of the process by which Roman Britannia became a patchwork of English kingdoms, including me in earlier posts on this blog about King Arthur, Somerset, and Lindinis in the fifth and sixth centuries, and indeed through to the eighth century. But I trust and believe some readers will find it useful to have this summary of the process, of the overall picture of the change across three centuries, gathered here in one relatively brief narrative.

 

 

[i] In the Mercian Tribal Hidage. In that document, the ending –saetna was used for some petty kingdoms that were not part of Mercia but were scheduled for paying land taxes to Mercia, including Pecsaetna and Cilternsaetna. These areas were under English political influence but not areas of English immigrant settlement.

[ii] He transmits a record that from “Rufus and Rubelius” – obviously meaning the consuldom of Fufius and Rubellius in the first half of 29CE – to Stilicho was 373 years and from Stilicho to the start of Vortigern’s reign was 28 years, which in combination take the date to 430CE. He also names Valentinian and Theodosius as consuls that year, which is true of 430 (and also of 426 and 435).