Dates may not be the whole of history, nor what is most interesting about it, but they are its sine qua non, for history’s entire originality and distinctive nature lie in apprehending the relation between before and after.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1961
can be no history without dates. While the date of the adventus Saxonum remains
disputed, fifth- and sixth-century Britain is effectively consigned to
the darkness of prehistory. But the evidence appears irreconcilable. The
Historia Brittonum, the two Gallic Chronicles and the archaeological evidence
would date this event to the first half of the fifth century, before 440,
whereas De Excidio Britanniae would seem to fix the date at some time after
446. But the contradiction is only apparent. It results from a naive and
literal reading of Gildas’ narratio. The key to understanding Gildas’ chronology
is to be found later in the epistle, in this line: Quis memoriam malefacti
de corde radicitus, ut Ioseph, evulsit? (Gildas 69.4)
Gildas’ biblical quotations are not pious platitudes. There is a great deal of historical information condensed into this brief sentence. Michael Winterbottom translates it as: “Which, like Joseph, plucked the memory of an injury from his heart by the roots?” and gives Genesis 50.15 as Gildas’ biblical source. He is doubtless correct: The Joseph in question is Jacob’s favourite son, he of the many-coloured coat, who was sold by his own brothers into slavery in Egypt. This is the injury, which he forgave so completely. But what is the parallel situation in Gildas’ day, to which his contemporaries must apply this lesson? Who, in the context of British history, are 'Joseph’s brothers', what was their wrongdoing and why must it now be erased from memory?
The British Joseph
The identity of the British ‘Joseph’, whom Gildas exhorts to forgive and forget, is obvious from the context. Michael Lapidge has shown that De Excidio Britanniae exactly follows the Roman convention of demonstrative oratory. First, there is the exordium (Gildas 1-2), in which Gildas explains his reasons for writing. This is followed by a narratio of the historia-subtype (Gildas 3-26) which explains the circumstances of the case. Then the propositio, the statement of the case itself, which is bipartite, dealing separately with the two sections of the British elite, the secular (Gildas 27-36) and ecclesiastical (Gildas 64-75). This is followed by the argumentatio, in which the case is proved, which is likewise bipartite (Gildas 37-63 and 76-105) and of the inartificial type which “involves precedents, hearsay, public records, oaths and witnesses (testes)” “The testes whom Gildas calls are the authors of Scripture, and the bulk of De Excidio Britanniae is taken up with their testimony against the sins and abuses prevalent in Britain.” According to this division, then, the reference to Joseph forms part of the propositio relating to the ecclesiastical authorities.
I must make a slight adjustment to Lapidge’s division. Gildas’ epistle is bipartite and primarily directed against and addressed to Britain’s wicked rulers, with these parallel openings: “Britain has kings, but they are tyrants"; "Britain has priests, but they are fools” (Gildas 27.1 & 66.1). But Gildas does not condemn the entire British elite. He excepts a minority. Among the laity there are the duces, “the few who have found the narrow path” (Gildas 50.1) who Gildas refers to but does not address. But he does address the few among the ecclesiastics who “cannot ... be categorised as bad”. Gildas 69 to 75 forms a separate section within his attack on the wicked priests, being an attack on the good priests whose conduct has fallen short of the ideal. This section opens with a nuda propositio in Gildas 69.1, followed by a list of testes involving twenty-six mostly biblical characters, ending with Basil of Caesarea who defied the Arian tyrant Valens. The reference to Joseph’s exemplary forgiveness is to be found among these testes against the good priests - where it stands out like a sore thumb.
Fraternal reconciliation is not prominent in Gildas’ epistle: Its purpose is to separate, not unite. Gildas states in his exordium that his decision to write, despite his own unworthiness, was forced on him by his reading in the bible that any tiny deviation from God’s Will must result in disaster, and that the good who associate with the wicked will meet same doom. He illustrates this point with a list of biblical testes beginning with Moses who was “prevented by a single word’s doubt” from entering the Promised Land, (Gildas 1.3, Num 20.12) and ending with Ananias and Sapphira who joined the earliest Christian community which “held everything in common” but failed to follow this rule and were struck down in consequence (Gildas 1.12, Acts 5.1-10). In between Gildas observes that there are different sheep in the same sheepfold, a reference to the last judgement when Christ will “separate the people one from another” (Matt. 25.32) which is further reinforced by two contrasting pairs of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, with Judas, the one bad apple among the Twelve and Stephen, the first Christian martyr, with Nicolas, the reputed founder of the Nicolaitan heresy, who were both among the first seven deacons. These paired opposites illustrate his point: the wicked Britons are within the Lord’s flock, but they do not belong there.
Gildas’ address to the good priests starts off in exactly the same vein, illustrating the need for a clear separation between the righteous and the wicked with the negative exemplar of Eli, who was punished, not for his own sins, but for those of his sons which he did not sufficiently reprove. The twenty five positive exemplars which follow, in biblical order, include Enoch who “refused to sit with the impious” (Gildas 69.2), Noah who “refused to admit into the ark of salvation (now, the church) anyone who was God’s adversary” (Gildas 69.3) and, most startling to modern ears, the priest Phinehas who, in order to turn God’s wrath away from the people, ended a mixed race marriage by slaughtering the Israelite groom and his Moabite bride, spearing the woman through her belly and thus “healing the emotion of lust with the medicine of penitence” (Gildas 70.1).
For a Christian moralist, Gildas is surprisingly sanguinary. Apart from the many examples of martyrdom, self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of loved ones and the murders of unarmed and defenceless individuals, Gildas holds up, for the edification of the good British priests, four slaughtered armies, three mass killings and one genocide: “Which of them imitated Joshua either in the utter uprooting (in a moral significance) of seven races from the promised land or in the establishment of spiritual Israel in their place?” (Gildas 70.1).
So how much of this bloodletting is to be understood ‘in a moral significance’? I think Gildas himself answers that. Fourth in his list of exemplary biblical characters is Melchizedek. This king of Salem and priest of God Most High has a brief role in Genesis, blessing Abraham after a military victory. This story begins with a rebellion by five underkings, including the rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah, against the overlordship of King Kedorlaomer who attacks them with three of his allies, hence, as Genesis calculates, “four kings against five” (Gen. 14.9). The four win and take booty, which happens to include Abraham’s nephew Lot with all his people and property. And so Abraham attacks the withdrawing army, rescuing all the captives and goods. At this point Melchizedek appears, bringing bread and wine, and blesses Abraham. From this, Gildas derives: “Which like Melchizedek offered sacrifice and gave blessing to the victors only when they had ... freed a just man and defeated the dire armies of five kings ... ?” (Gildas 69.3). The alteration bends the biblical event to the contemporary situation. It was the four kings who were defeated by Abraham, but Gildas’ tyrants are five in number. His denunciation of these named individuals is followed by the testes of twenty two biblical prophets who predicted the overthrow of wicked kings and the destruction of sinful kingdoms, starting with Samuel who, in accord with God’s will, replaced Saul with David, and including Jeremiah who predicted the Babylonian captivity. Gildas’ reference to the duces is within this section, immediately after a quotation from Jeremiah beginning “Do not, then, pray for this people” (Jer. 11.14). The duces, Gildas tells the tyrants, are “prevented by God from pouring forth prayers on your behalf” and he asks, rhetorically, what they will do now. There is no room for doubt. The duces “could not have brought punishment” on the tyrants if they had “gone back to God genuinely”, just as Jonah couldn’t punish the Ninevites, “for all his desire to” (Gildas 50.1) because they had genuinely repented. That is, the duces have previously attacked the tyrants and if they do not repent they will attack them again - physically, not “in a moral significance”. And Gildas, with his distortion of Melchizedek’s story, exhorts the good priests to encourage this attack.
As said, Gildas is not big on fraternal reconciliation, and generally favours bloody retribution over forgiving and forgetting. So why this one exception? In respect of what injury are the good priests to imitate Joseph? Who are they to regard as their brothers? We may discover them, I think, by a process of elimination.
‘Joseph’s brothers’ are not the British duces. These have inflicted an injury, but on the British tyrants, not the British Joseph, and Gildas is far from suggesting a brotherly reunion in this case. Rather, he instructs the good priests to incite further attacks. They should withhold their blessings, as did Melchizedek, until the five kings are overthrown. They should encourage the few duces to believe that they can overcome the tyrants, just as Elisha “by fervent prayer to God opened the eyes of a boy sweating in despair of his life and suddenly terrified at the warlike preparations of the enemy … so that he could see the mountain full of allies from the heavenly army” (Gildas 72.2). They should share out among the duces the forfeited territories of the tyrants in advance of their defeat, just as Joshua and Phinehas, prior to the conquest of the Promised Land, “showed to the people of God the boundary lines beyond Jordan, so that it should be known what properly belonged to each tribe” (Gildas 70.2).
Likewise, ‘Joseph’s brothers’ are not the five tyrants. The wrongs they have done, so far from being forgotten, are paraded before Gildas’ readers in colourful detail. Forgiveness is offered them, repeatedly (Gildas 29.2; 30.3; 31.2; 36.2; 42.5). They can escape destruction as did the Ninevites. Along with the innocent, “most worthy repenters” are to be admitted into “the arc of salvation” (Gildas 69.3). But at the point Gildas is writing the tyrants plainly aren’t contrite. So what are the good priests to do now? The tyrants must be overthrown, and the good priests should participate, with the duces, in their destruction. They should, as said, encourage the duces to attack them. They should, like Samuel, reject a king who displeases God and anoint a better in his royal place (Gildas 71.2). They should defy the tyrants to their face, as Basil of Caesarea defied Emperor Valens (Gildas 75.2). They should willingly face martyrdom at their hands, as did Abel, Jeremiah, James the first bishop, James, brother of John, Stephen, Peter, Paul, Ignatius and Polycarp (Gildas 69.2; 72.4; 73.2 - 74.3; 75.1). They should be prepared to destroy themselves in order to destroy the wicked, just as Samson “used the strength of his arms to shake two columns (understood as the corrupt pleasures of soul and flesh)” (Gildas 71.1). They certainly shouldn’t pluck the memory of the tyrants’ injuries from their hearts by the root.
‘Joseph’s brothers’ are not the bad priests. The sins of are, likewise, neither forgiven nor forgotten. They stand in relation to the good priests, not as brothers but as sons to a too indulgent father, in Gildas’ scheme, and he instructs the good priests to behave towards them as Eli should have behaved towards his sons: he merely “warned them gently and compassionately” instead of punishing them “severely and with a zeal worthy of God” (Gildas 76.2) and in consequence he was destroyed along with them. The good priests must separate themselves from the bad priests, no matter how dear they might hold them, just as Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son (Gildas 69.4); as Jephthah did sacrifice his only daughter (Gildas 70.2); as Elisha dismissed his dearest follower (Gildas 72.1).
If 'Joseph’s brothers' are not among the British elite, who’s left? Perhaps the common people, the vulgo irrationabili? (Gildas 15.3) But these are acted upon, rather than acting, in Gildas’ scheme. They may suffer with and for their wicked rulers - though “pity is granted to the small” (Gildas 63) - but there is no suggestion they might be separately liable, or separately forgiven, for any offence. The Saxons “hated by man and God” (Gildas 23.1), can hardly count as ‘brothers’ to the good priests, and nor can the Picts and Scots, “readier to cover their villainous faces with hair than their private parts and neighbouring regions with clothes” (Gildas 19.1). So we must conclude that ‘Joseph’s brothers’ are not in Britain.
The sin of the Britons
This leads to one further elimination: Since we know where the perpetrators aren’t, we know what the injury wasn’t. We can rule out that congenital sin of the Britons which provoked Gildas to write (Gildas 1.14). But what, exactly, was that?
It was not civil violence. We must beware of viewing Gildas’ denunciation of his contemporaries through the lens of later scholarship. Historians from Bede onwards have held that De Excidio Britanniae denounced the moral and social collapse of contemporary Britain and correctly predicted this would pave the way for the English conquest. But this is history written backwards, natural enough in a providential account but lacking any textual support. If the British sin which so exercises Gildas were civil violence, the duces would not be among the saved. True, he condemns specific violent acts committed by the five tyrants, but he condemns their sexual sins with equal vehemence, which is to say, their violence is not the reason he condemns them. Gildas Sapiens deserves no credit for political wisdom or prescience. His Jeremiad was not intended to warn the British of the dangers of civil war. Gildas is in fact an advocate of civil war: what he abhors is the current peace, the accommodation between the good and the wicked prevailing at the time of his writing. He even cautions the good priests to “avoid the curse of the prophet on one preventing the sword and the shedding of blood” (Gildas 69.4, Jer. 48.10).
So, Gildas objects to where and with whom the British tyrants made love and war, but the congenital sin of the Britons is not restricted to these five. Both clergy and laity are infected, indeed bound together (Gildas 67.2), by this evil. So what have the wicked priests done?
Gildas’ denunciation of Britain’s churchmen is much less personalised than his attack on the tyrants. He names no individuals, gives no specific incidences; he just asserts, in the most vituperative language, that they are the inverse of everything a priest should be. But we can discern, under the rhetoric, what their real crime is.
It is stated simply at the start of Gildas’ address to the good priests, which is inserted, as said, into his diatribe against the bad priests. What distinguishes the one from the other? “But, it may be said: not all bishops and presbyters as categorised above are bad, for they are not all stained with the disgrace of schism, pride and uncleanness” (Gildas 69.1): The bad priests are schismatic. Gildas is quite clear, and he further elaborates: “the error they are most prone to - and the error that leaves least hope for them - is that they buy priesthoods, which are tainted and cannot avail them, not from the apostles or their successors but from the tyrants and their father the devil” (Gildas 67.2). The bad priests are not the successors of the Apostles. Gildas states this repeatedly and unequivocally: “O you are enemies of god and not priests, veterans in evil and not bishops, traitors and not successors to the holy apostles (Gildas 108.3). “To Peter and his successors the Lord says: ‘And I shall give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’: but to you: ‘I do not know you, depart from me, workers of iniquity’ ... And again every holy priest is promised: ‘And whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven too: and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven too’. But how will you loose anything so that it is loosed in heaven too, seeing that you are removed from heaven because of your crimes and bound with the ropes of dreadful sins“ (Gildas 109.5).
Dark Age historians who are not well versed in theology might assume Gildas is here claiming that the sins of the wicked priests have rendered them unfit for the priesthood. But if Gildas were saying that, he would be a heretic.
In Gildas’ day the orthodox view on this subject was that developed by Augustine of Hippo in his struggle against the anti-Imperial Christians of North Africa - Donatists to the orthodox; the Church of the Martyrs in their own appellation. In essence, these maintained the traditional Christian opposition to the Roman Empire: “What has the Emperor to do with the Church?" was Donatus’ rhetorical question. The split arose during the Diocletian persecution, which was not everywhere as bloody as Church tradition remembered. Even priests and bishops could sometimes avoid all physical punishment by simply giving up their scriptures to be burned. The view of the African rigourists, however, was that Christians who thus succumbed had left the church, and required baptism for readmission. The sacraments performed by lapsed priests were invalid, including the ordination of their successors, whose authority the Donatists rejected. The result was, inevitably, two separate Churches in North Africa.
A century later St. Augustine set out to reunify African Christianity, taking as his text Luke’s conclusion to the parable of the great banquet, “compel them to come in” (Luke 14.23). To his novel recommendation of state force to suppress Christian dissent he added a new theology which disposed of the Donatists’ objections to the orthodox church authorities. Augustine claimed that all humanity was infected at conception by an original sin, inherited from Adam, which must damn every individual to hell unless redeemed by God’s grace. This grace was conveyed through the sacraments administered by the heirs to the Apostles, that is the priests of the orthodox, Roman Church who alone could claim an unbroken line of ordinations stretched back to the Twelve who were granted that power by Christ himself. It was conveyed regardless of the spiritual state of the administering clergy: No sin, no crime of a properly ordained priest could wipe away the power to bind and loose which was given to Peter and all his successors.
It is not the British priests’ moral failings which invalidate their sacraments, it is their ordinations. At the time of his writing the British Church, in Gildas’ view, has been schismatic for generations: “those who ordain these candidates for priesthood (or rather degrade them and curse them for a blessing, making of sinners not, as would be better, repenters, but sacrilegious and desperate men, and, in a sense, placing Judas, betrayer of the Lord, in the seat of Peter, and that contriver of a filthy heresy, Nicholas, in the place of the martyr Stephen) were themselves called to the priesthood in just the same way: and so do not greatly detest (and even respect) in their sons something which certainly happened in their own case and that of their fathers too.” (Gildas 67.4)
Most historians of this period are not theologians, and have perhaps been distracted by Gildas’ failure to mention Pelagius, Pelagians or St. Germanus’ missions to Britain. Yet in his narratio he does blame Britain’s separation from the Empire on heresy. True, the only heresy he names is Arianism, but he links it here with all the others, cuiuslibet haereseos. He has no reason to name the specific, British heresy. In his scheme, details of doctrine are irrelevant, since all heresies amount to the same crime, a refusal to submit to the rightful authorities: “As one of us well says, it is not a question of the nature of the offence, but of the breaking of an order”. (Gildas 38.1).
It is perfectly plain in Gildas’ text what that “rope of congenital sins that has been stretched far and wide for so many years together” (Gildas 1.14) actually consists of. His narratio illuminates it throughout, but it is stated quite simply at the start of it: “Ever since it was first inhabited, Britain has been ungratefully rebelling, stiff-necked and haughty” (Gildas 4.1). The sin Gildas calls upon his countrymen to renounce, on pain of spiritual and temporal destruction, is insubordination: in ecclesiastics that’s heresy, in lay rulers it’s rebellion.
Which begs the question. If Rome ‘withdrew’ from Britain in the early fifth century, and Gildas is writing in the early to mid sixth century, who is Maglocunus, “dragon of the island”, “mightier than many”, “higher than almost all the generals of Britain” (Gildas 33.1-2) rebelling against? Who, in Gildas’ view, holds rightful authority over Britain in his day?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. At this point we can add to our knowledge of 'Joseph’s brothers' that they are not heretics or rebels. The good Britons have sustained some kind of injury from their own side, from orthodox, Roman imperialists resident outside these islands. The nature of that injury, and the identity of its perpetrators, lies in Gildas’ ‘historical’ introduction.
A narratio of the historia-subtype, this part of Gildas' epistle is designed to explain how the contemporary situation which he denounces came into being. It purports to recount the sequence of events from the Roman invasion to the battle of Badon, but for the bulk of that period, where Gildas is dealing with known history, his account is demonstrably a-historical. So it is only when he reaches the fifth century that historians begin to treat his account as a valid historical source. This is a mistake. Gildas’ narratio is woven as a whole garment and no part of it is history. It is an anti-national myth, denying Britain’s right to exist outside the Roman Empire and its Church.
Gildas himself tells us that his version of British history deviates from that known and accepted by his countrymen - it is derived from transmarina relatione - and that it is an account of the injuries which the Britons suffered at the time of the Roman Emperors and inflicted on others, “even those far away” (Gildas 4.4). The injury inflicted on ‘Joseph’ by his ‘brothers’ is not on the surface of Gildas’ story, but it is not too deeply disguised. To discover it we have only to observe the distortions Gildas deliberately introduces.
There are no accidental errors in Gildas’ narratio. It is composed of fragments taken from mostly traceable sources, adapted, sometimes reversed, and chronologically rearranged to suit his purpose. Conveniently summarised at the end of his exordium, it divides neatly into three sections as follows:
Gildas 4 - 13, Roman Britain
de contumacia (4), de subiectione (5), de rebellione (6), item de subiectione ac diro famulatu (7), de religione (8), de persecutione (9), de sanctis martyribus (10-11), de diversis haeresibus (12), de tyrannis (13).
Gildas 14 - 20 The war against the Picts and Scots
de duabus gentibus vastatricibus (14), de defensione (15), itemque vastatione(16), de secunda ultione (17-18), tertiaque vastatione, de fame (19), de epistolis ad agitium, de victoria (20).
Gildas 21 - 25, The war against the Saxons
de sceleribus (21), de nuntiatis subito hostibus, de famosa peste, de consilio(22), de saeviore multo primis hoste (23), de urbium subversione (24), de reliquis, de postrema patriae victoria (25),
The story opens with the insolent pagan Britons in possession of the island of Britain. Gildas informs us that he knows more about this period than he is saying, but leaves us to guess what he knows. The first action he relates is the Roman invasion, which occurs after Rome has imposed peace on the whole world. The Romans meeting no resistance, impose obedience on the imbellum, infidelem Britons, and then go back to Rome “allegedly for want of land”. As many historians have observed, there is no Roman occupation in Gildas’ narratio. Is this evidence that “knowledge of the past had been wiped out of men’s minds” in Gildas’ day, as E A Thompson asserts?  The presence of "Caratauc map Cinbelin map Teuhant" in later British tradition (Harleian 3859), surely proves otherwise.
Caratacus and his ancestors are of course missing from Gildas’ narratio. Indeed Gildas explicitly denies the British resistance, for reasons that are perfectly explicable. In Roman jurisprudence slavery originated in war, defeated enemies who saved their lives at the expense of their honour became the absolute possessions of the victors. In denying the British resistance Gildas denies any treaty between the Britons and the Romans, and thus any suggestion of mutual obligation. Their cowardly surrender reduces the Britons to a slave race, absorbed into the Roman familia in perpetuity, their cultural and legal existence terminated. The Britons’ subsequent rebellion under the leaena dolosa is thus a slave revolt leading to diro famulatu. After this the very name of Britain is obliterated and all the island’s coinage is stamped with the image of Caesar - contemporaries would have heard the echo of Christ’s words in the Synoptic Gospels, and grasped the implication, “render unto Caesar...” (Matt. 22.21; Mark 12.16-17; Luke 20.25). Rome’s taxes are thus sanctioned by Christ himself, in Gildas’ political myth, but the Britons must expect nothing in return, not even defence, as there is no social contract between master and slave . This point becomes relevant later in Gildas’ story.
After suppressing this revolt the Romans again return whence they came, according to Gildas, not for want of land this time but because of a dearth of wine and oil. If his readers really were unaware that Roman troops were stationed in Britain throughout the period of the Empire, Gildas would not need to offer these trite explanations.
Britain’s contumacia thus corrected, the next phase is religione: Christianity spreads through the empire, protected from persecution by emperor Tiberius, and reaches this distant island. The story is not Gildas’ invention: Orosius, Augustine’s pupil, first suggested that the Roman Empire was God’s tool to facilitate the spread of Christianity throughout the world; Tiberius Caesar, Defender of the Faith, is from Tertullian, via Eusebius. All Gildas adds to the mix is the Britons’ tepid reception of the new faith.
Next comes persecutione: the Diocletian persecution. Gildas admits only this one Roman persecution of Christians in Britain, and he minimises both its duration and Rome’s culpability. During it the British martyrs met their deaths, he tells us, but then in his account they must, for he has left no other option. In his source, Eusebius, this ten-year persecution is the winter of discontent before the glorious summer of Constantine’s rule: Gildas fails to mention this first Christian emperor, who was raised to the purple in Britain - as was Maximus.
After sanctis martyribus comes diversis haeresibus: the British Church that emerges from this one persecution is completely orthodox; “all her sons exulted, as though warmed in the bosom of the mother church.” (Gildas 12.2) But this pleasant agreement between the head and limbs of Christ does not last; the brothers who had lived as one are sundered by the arrival of the foreign Arian heresy, which opens the door to every other heresy. In contrast to the Britons’ lukewarm reception of the original pure faith, Gildas tells us these heresies are welcomed with open arms by a people who always prefer to hear something new and who hold steadfastly to nothing. This statement, indeed everything from chapter 8 up to this point, is directed against a British Church of the Martyrs which claimed to preserve the Christian tradition she had originally received in the days of Imperial persecution, undefiled by Augustine’s innovations.
Then comes tyrannis: the growth of heresy causes the wicked usurpation of Maximus. Now Britain, though still Roman in name, was not so by law and custom. Gildas clearly knows of other British usurpers, and he elsewhere quotes Porphyry’s statement that “Britain is a province fertile of tyrants” (Gildas 4.3), but he only names this one. He includes details which demonstrate a knowledge of Maximus’ genuine history: his capital was Trier; he caused the death of one emperor and the flight, from Rome, of another; he was executed at Aquileia. There are signs, indeed, that he knew Sulpicius Severus’ Vita Martini. In sum, he knew perfectly well that Maximus was orthodox.
And so ends Roman Britain, in Gildas’ account. Corrected of her contumacia , reduced to Romania, Britain had received the pure faith which alone provides salvation. Heresy had overturned this happy ordering of society. The rest of Gildas’ narratio tells the story of the failed state of Britannia, incapable of self-rule and continually in need of Rome’s protection and guidance.
Gildas blames Maximus for the end of Roman Britain, thus dating the separation to the 380s. Of course we know better, but the point is, so did Gildas. It is accepted that he had read Orosius, and therefore he knew of Constantine III, but chose not to mention him. I’d argue he knew the whole story of the end of Roman Britain that has come down to us and has reworked it into myth.
Historically, the beginning of the end was Stilicho’s withdrawal of troops from Britain and the Rhine frontier for the defence of Italy against Alaric, which led to a serious a barbarian incursion into Gaul and the raising of three British usurpers. Gildas elaborately denies this. In his narratio there are no Roman troops stationed in Britain in the period of Rome's rule. The soldiers who conquered Britain all went back to Rome and Italy, he tells us, even inventing reasons why they did so. As they were never here, Rome cannot have withdrawn them. It was the British usurper, Maximus, who stripped Britain of her defences: Rome is entirely exonerated in Gildas' account.
Our historical sources tell us that Britain, threatened, elevated three usurpers in rapid succession, first Marcus, then Gratian, and finally Constantine III. Gildas works this into a later part of his narrative: in chapter 21, sceleribus, he tells us that kings were anointed and soon after slain, to be replaced by others still more cruel. He knows also that the Britons succeeded in freeing themselves of the barbarian threat, but places victoria in chapter 20, after Britain’s third, unsuccessful appeal to Rome, where it serves the purpose of his myth.
In Gildas' story, after tyranos, ie Maximus, comes duabus gentibus vastatricibus. Britain, having divested herself of her military and her governors, falls prey to the savage Picts and Scots. Chastened and contrite, the Britons send envoys to Rome with letters begging for rescue and promising subiectionem sui romano imperio continue tota animi virtute (Gildas 15.1). The Romans, praeteriti mali immemor (Gildas 15.2), do rescue them, and advise the building of a wall across the island linking the two seas: but the Britons built in turf, not stone (as indeed they did in Gildas’ day). Thus, being the work of a “leaderless and irrational mob” (Gildas 15.3) this wall failed in its purpose. There was another ferocious attack, another British appeal to Rome "like fightened chicks huddling under the wings of their faithful parents" (Gildas 17.1), another effortless Roman rescue, another wall built from sea to sea but this time solito structurae more (Gildas 18.2), that is, in stone. Then a third devastation, a third appeal, but no third rescue.
This neat pattern is an artificial construct built from recognisable fragments. There were two Roman expeditions against the barbarian oppressors of Britain which were particularly celebrated by Roman writers, that of Theodosius the Elder in 368 and Stilicho, around 398. There were, and are, two walls - first century constructions as all subsequent insular historians knew. But as these obviously were built to defend Britain from the incursions of northern barbarians, once Gildas had moved the northern barbarians to the post-Roman period, the walls had to follow.
In Gildas’ story there is no barbarian threat to Britain in the Roman period, and no barbarian attacks at all on any other part of the empire, since these are a punishment for wicked rebellion against legitimate authority. But a knowledge of fifth-century history can sometimes cloud historians’ reading of Gildas’ text. Thus David Dumville tells us that Gildas presents the Romans as “intermittent rescuers, unable, after the conclusion of the Second Pictish War even to undertake that limited role” But this is exactly what Gildas does not say. The fifth-century collapse of Roman power does not happen in Gildas’ narratio. The two Roman rescues of Britain are easily effected. The Romans announce during the second rescue that they won’t be wasting any more time on these imbelles erraticosque latrunculos (Gildas 18.1) and instead they arm, train and encourage the Britons to do the job themselves. And then, Gildas tells us, “they said goodbye, meaning never to return”: clearly we are in the realm of myth.
Gildas’ artificial construction, in 14 - 20, is directed to a single point, Rome’s perfectly justified rejection of the Britons’ third appeal. These disloyal rebels had no right to expect rescue, they had brought their doom down on themselves. They had no reason to expect it, the Romans had already said goodbye. They had no need of it, the Romans had assisted in the building of the necessary fortifications, advised the Britons on the manufacture of armaments, and pointed out to the natives that they were perfectly capable of defending their own families and property if they could only overcome their fear and torpor - as, indeed, proved to be the case. Independent Britain’s first victory over the barbarians follows after this last appeal, the letter addressed to Agitio ter consuli (Gildas 20.1). It is generally accepted that this is Aëtius, who was consul for the third time in 446. That first British victory occurred during the reign of Constantine III, around 410. Gildas has transposed this event by a generation.
This first British victory brings to an end Gildas’ account of the war with the Picts and Scots, just as the second British victory, Badon, ends his story of the war with the Saxons. In Gildas’ scheme the two wars, and the two sets of enemies, are neatly divided, and separated in time. The historical reality was, we know, a lot messier. Yet it is because Gildas positions this tidily encapsulated Saxon war, including advent, revolt and eventual defeat, all after Aëtius’ third consulship, that fifth-century British history is deprived of dates. For some historians insist that, for this period, Gildas’ witness trumps all other evidence: “He alone seems to have had access to contemporary sources for the fifth century.” Doubtless Gildas had sources: but how has he used them? To determine that we must observe what he stresses, what he omits, and where he strains credulity.
There is an obvious stress on Aëtius, who is mentioned three times. Gildas is not big on names. In narrative spanning roughly five hundred years, from the Roman conquest to the battle of Badon, he names only eight individuals, apart from Christ, and alludes to just two more. Even Ambrosius Aurelianus, almost the last of the Romans, sole author of the British resistance to the Saxons, is only named once. But Aëtius is named twice in the narratio and once in the exordium - the only name mentioned in Gildas 1.2. What was his role in British history? Gildas presents him as the passive recipient of a letter, to which he did not respond.
The letter to Aëtius forms a watershed in Gildas’ story of independent Britain. Before it, Rome’s aid might be expected, after it, that hope had vanished. Before it, the barbarian oppressors are Picts and Scots, after it, Saxons. The Saxons do not appear in Britain until long after the Romans have said goodbye. Gildas tells us the Britons feared them worse than death - prior to first contact! He mentions the Saxon Shore forts, though not by that name, and claims they were constructed after the second Roman rescue on the south coast as defence against the Picts and Scots - who, he says, attacked from the north and the north-west respectively. He then tells us that the Saxons recruited to oppose these two races were positioned, against all geographical logic, in the east of the island. He presents the Saxon recruitment as an anomalous and aberrant act - the proud tyrant and council responsible for this insane invitation were struck blind by God - and seems quite unaware of Roman precedent in this matter. Yet he knows the appropriate Roman terminology: annona, foedus, hospites.
In Gildas’ narratio the Saxons were invited into Britain, not to counter an actual threat, but in response to a mere rumour. Gildas stresses this: nuntiatis subito hostibus (Gildas 2), auditu tantum tribulationis; non ignoti rumoris penniger (Gildas 22.1). This rumour was sent by God, the intention being to purge His family without applying any physical punishment. But this mere threat didn’t have the desired effect and the Saxon assault became necessary because, as Gildas, quoting Solomon, explains: “The stubborn servant is not corrected by words” (Gildas 22.2, Prov. 29.19) One would have thought God would have known that.
The Saxon revolt was not provoked by the Britons, Gildas is at pains to assure us. From the start the treacherous barbarians intended to conquer the whole island. Few in number at first, they invited others of their rascally kind to join them, then finally they put their plan into effect. They complained of insufficient supplies, deliberately misrepresented events - occasiones de industria colorantes- threatened to break the treaty if their demands were not met but gave the Britons no time to respond - nec mora, minas effectibus prosequuntur (Gildas 23.5): that is, Gildas elaborately informs us the Britons did not refuse the annona demanded. In Gildas’ scheme the Britons are usually held responsible for every evil which befalls them, not excluding plague, famine and other ‘acts of God’. Only in this particular case are they blameless.
To make sense of this we’ve only to add the witness of the two Gallic chroniclers for the mid-fifth century. We have no good reason to discount them. In contrast to Gildas’ narratio these are, intentionally, records of events which actually happened, in due order. And they agree with each other: Britain fell to the Saxons before Aëtius’ third consulship.
I believe we can reconstruct the history from which Gildas created his myth. He tells us in his narratio that the Romans said goodbye precisely because they did not. The “neighbouring lands and provinces” (Gildas 13.2) which joined the British revolt against Rome - in 410, not 382 - were retaken by 418. The reconquest of Britain was an obvious next step. The rumour which should have corrected British Pelagianism but which instead led to the adventus Saxonum was news of a planned Roman invasion. The Saxons were noted sailors. They were stationed, according to insular tradition, not just vaguely in the east of the island but in the extreme south-east, in Kent, where the channel is at its narrowest and a Roman fleet might be expected to land.
It was not the Saxons who broke the treaty. A section of the British elite, intriguing for the restoration of the empire, did withhold the annona. Why else would Gildas mention it? The Saxon duces, unable to pay or feed their men, had little choice but to raid their ex-hosts. Order broke down, but no Roman fleet appeared off the now unguarded coast. The loyal imperialists appealed to Aëtius. There was no third rescue, Gildas tells us, for none was deserved, or needed. Bede, attempting to make sense of this, tells us Aëtius was busy at the time waging two serious wars against the Huns. But the real key to resolving Gildas’ narratio into history lies in the Gallic Chronicle of 452.
Britain is here grouped with four other Roman territories which came under German dominion around the same time, the list being intended, Ian Wood suggests, “to explain the end of the west Roman empire.” These four were all given into the power of the barbarians by Roman authority: three were deliberately settled with German federates and though the Vandals took Africa by force their dominion was confirmed by treaty. Why should Britain, in the same list, have been an exception? The chronicler treats these territories as alienated from the empire, but his perspective, shared by many historians since, is completely at odds with the Roman view at the time: Aëtius’ German federates were not, officially, carving up the Empire, they were restoring it. The Alans were planted in Gallia Ulteria, for example, to quell native revolt. .
It was native revolt which had separated Britain from the Empire. An imperial recovery was anticipated, the Saxon federates positioned to oppose it. Once these had been detached from their alliance, a Roman fleet could land, but didn’t. The British loyalists were unable to master the chaos they had created. Their letter to Aëtius was an admission of failure, of incapacity. How did Aëtius respond? The Gallic Chronicler informs us: Britain was no exception, just one more casualty on his list, betrayed, like the others, into the hands of the barbarians.
The Saxons did not conquer the island from sea to sea in the 440s. Their dominion was acquired by treaty. Britain was ceded to them by the Roman authorities, that is, by Aëtius. This is the malefacti which Gildas refers to in 69.4. The orthodox, Roman Christians, having intrigued for the return of the empire, were given into the power of the pagan Saxons by their own side, just as Joseph was sold to the heathen Egyptians by his brothers. Gildas, in his narratio, has done exactly what he instructs the good, orthodox priests to do in their hearts; his chronological rearrangement of British history has plucked out by the root all memory of Aëtius’ betrayal.
Dating the adventus Saxonum
The adventus Saxonum preceded Aëtius third consulship, and must be dated to the first half of the fifth century. There is no contrary evidence. But can we be more precise? I think we can. We still have one question left to ask of Gildas 69.4: Why? Why must the British ‘Joseph’ erase this Roman injury from memory, or more exactly, why now?
When is ‘now’? “The text of the De Excidio must be the starting point for any discussion of its date”, so what does Gildas tell us? He is writing forty-three years and one month after Badon, which doesn’t help much. But he also refers us to another event, a little over ten years previously, which might have caused him to write but didn’t.
De Excidio is a carefully crafted work, and every statement in it is there for a reason. Gildas is not here discussing some earlier draft which was never published, he is referring to a specific event which his readers might have expected him to respond to with a letter such as this, a letter whose purpose, as clearly stated in the exordium, is to denounce the accommodation between the orthodox and the heretics in Britain: In the same fold there are different sheep, and this situation must be brought to an end. That event is not lost to history. The same accommodation had once prevailed in Gaul; the semi-Pelagians, those who denounced Pelagius the man whilst rejecting Augustine’s theology, remained within the Gallic Church until hereticised by the Council of Orange, which met on the 3rd July, 529.
Gildas is writing spatio bilustri temporis uel eo amplius (Gildas 1.2) after this event, that is, some time in the second half of 539. If Badon was fought forty-three years and one month previously - and he ought to know, as that was the year of his birth (Gildas 26.1) - then we can date that battle to 496. The Annales Cambriae place Badon in ‘year 72’, in which case year 1 is 425, the year Valentinian III became co-emperor with Theodosius II, the year of their joint consulship - the year Vortigern came to power in Britain according to the Historia Brittonum. This source dates the adventus Saxonum to the fourth year of Vortigern’s reign, to the consulship of Felix and Taurus, that is, 428.
The evidence is coherent. British fifth century history can be dated as follows: Vortigern came to power in 425; the adventus Saxonum occurred in 428; in the sixty-ninth year after that, Badon was fought, in 496; in the forty-fourth year after Badon, Gildas wrote De Excidio Britanniae, in 539. If we have correctly solved this part of the puzzle, other pieces should fall into place.
Why now? The British Joseph, Gildas’ good, orthodox minority, were sold into the power of the Saxons some time between 446 and 454. Gildas is writing, at a minimum, 85 years after this event. Why does he bring up the subject? Why remind his co-religionist of Aëtius’ treachery, only to instruct them to pluck that memory out of their hearts by the root? Because history is about to repeat itself.
Rome never withdrew from Britain. Procopius, writing in the mid sixth century, states that, after the overthrow of Constantine III “the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time under tyrants.” Tyrants, as opposed to duces, is the term Gildas applies to the five lay protectors of the British Pelagian church, from whom, he claims, these wicked men bought their priesthoods. The congenital sin of the Britons is insubordination. Barring a small minority, her priests are heretics and her rulers rebels. But against whom were the British tyrants rebelling? Who, in Gildas’ day, and in Gildas’ view, is the rightful overlord of Maglocunus, dragon of the island? The answer is Justinian - or whomever that emperor should designate.
Britain still belonged to Rome in the time of Justinian; that, we know, was Justinian’s perspective, for it is preserved in the written record. In 538, as the war against the Goths in Italy appeared to be drawing to a close, Belisarius offered to exchange Sicily for “the whole island of Britain, which belongs to us from of old”. Britain had been Rome’s, therefore it was Rome’s: as Gildas’ narratio expresses it, the Britons were slaves forever.
Justinian crusade against the insolent heretics who had alienated imperial territories certainly did encompass Britain. This is what Gildas is telling us. This is why he confounds the native British heresy with the arriana perfidia, and blames the latter for Britain’s departure from the Empire (Gildas 12.3). It seems improbable that Justinian seriously intended to replace Pelagian dominion over Britain with that of the Arian Goths. But forcing the British rebels to fight on two fronts would be perfectly in keeping with Justinian’s modus operandi, as described in Procopius’ History of the Wars.
Prior to the Roman invasion of Vandal Africa, King Gelimer was distracted by two revolts, both of which Justinian had a hand in, so that Belisarius’ forces were able to land unopposed, the Vandal fleet being then in Sardinia. The Roman recovery of Italy was preceded by a feud within the Gothic royal family, and Justinian intrigued with both parties. The eventual winner, King Theodahad, was almost intimidated into surrendering Italy without a fight, persuaded by Justinian’s ambassador of the hopelessness of his position. Meanwhile Justinian wrote to the Frankish king Theudebert, inviting his participation in the coming war on the grounds of their common religion and their mutual hatred of the Goths. A present of gold accompanied the letter.
We have further evidence of Justinian’s diplomatic use of gold in Procopius’ Secret History, where he complains that the emperor emptied the treasury buying the friendship of barbarians from “as far as Britain, and over all the inhabited earth; so that nations whose very names we had never heard of, we now learned to know, seeing their ambassadors for the first time.” Angili from Britain were included in one of these barbarian embassies to Justinian’s court, sent by a king of the Franks to “establish his claim that the island was ruled by him.” Clearly this king was not challenging Justinian’s dominion over Britain, but seeking his endorsement. Did he receive it?
The Britons’ situation at the time of Gildas was more parlous than in the days of Aëtius. The German invaders were now well established in Britain and in close and friendly contact with their relatives the Franks, who were the dominant power on the other side of the channel, and who had crushed the independent Gallo-Roman kingdom of Syagrius with no protest from the empire or its church. The Franks had converted to the faith of the Empire, and the Empire endorsed their rule over Gaul. Gildas tells us the Saxons were hated by God and man, but as the Franks’ example showed one simple change would render them acceptable to both God and His earthly deputies – baptism.
In this pass, civil war among the Britons would be unwise. Whoever won, the ultimate victors would be the Saxons. This, indeed, is the lesson history taught Gildas’ contemporaries, the lesson of Aëtius’ choice. It is exactly this lesson which Gildas instructs them to erase from memory. The orthodox priests should withhold their blessings (the sacraments?) in order to initiate a war against the five tyrants (Gildas 69.3). They must persuade the duces this will result in a redistribution, not a reduction, of British-held lands (Gildas 70.2), that the victory of the orthodox minority is certain since reinforcements will shortly arrive (Gildas 72.2). Gildas, with this reference to Elisha and the frightened boy, is not suggesting his readers should look to the heavens for succour; he is informing them that Justinian’s forces are already mobilising.
If the orthodox Britons fail to plunge their country into civil war in advance of Justinian’s intervention, what then? Gildas is quite explicit. The righteous will be punished along with the sinners, just as Eli was punished with his sons. If the orthodox minority do not make themselves useful to the empire they also will be swept aside, since they are “so small in number that, as they lie in her lap, the holy mother church in a sense does not see them” (Gildas 26.3). And they should willingly submit to this, just as Moses prayed over the sinful Israelites: “Lord, this people has committed a great sin: but if you forgive them, forgive them; otherwise, blot me out of your book” (Gildas 69.5).
British dominion over Britain was not swept aside by Rome’s great and splendid army in 540. So what went wrong? Plague stalled Justinian’s crusade against the heretics, but as this did not reach the Empire until 541 it could hardly have prevented an Imperial assault on Britain had this been immanent in 539. Clearly Gildas exaggerates. But in his account of Rome’s intentions towards the Britons there is no deception. And these did not change over time. When Pope Gregory sent Augustine to the court of Aethelbert of Kent, with instructions, from that position, to take control of the British Church, he made the same choice which Aëtius made in the mid-fifth century, and Justinian made in the mid-sixth.
Britain in these two centuries is not as politically dark as some historians would have us believe. Our prime source, De Excidio Britanniae, casts a blazing light on the essential features of this period. But its witness has been misunderstood because its author’s motives have been misconstrued. Gildas is no Dark Age Jeremiah, no clear-sighted patriot wringing his hands over the folly and incompetence of his feuding countrymen, he is a Late Roman Lord Haw Haw, the agent and mouthpiece of a foreign power bent on Britain’s destruction.
Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009
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1 Gildas,The ruin of Britain and other works. ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom. Chichester, England: Phillimore and Co. 1978.
2 Michael Lapidge, 'Gildas's Education', pp 41-44. In: Lapidge, M. and Dumville, D. (eds.). Gildas: New Approaches. Woodbridge, Boydell. 1984.
3 Ibid p41.
4 Ibid p44.
5 E A Thompson, Saint Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain, p115. Woodbridge, Boydell, 1984.
6 “Caratauc is Caratacus, the famous king of the Catuvellauni captured and taken to Rome in AD 51, as recorded in Tacitus. Dio Cassius informs us that his father was the king Cunobelinus (d. c. 42), here Cinbelin. His father appears to have been Tasciovanus, here Teuhant, but the most remarkable fact is that this name is not recorded in any extant classical source except coins unearthed by archaeologists.” Harleian Genealogies 16; The Heirs of Caratacus - Cunobelinus and his relatives in medieval Welsh genealogies. http://www.webcitation.org/5kmkmsdXx
7 Alban, it seems, was martyred during Emperor Severus’ visit to Britain, that is, between 208 and 211. see see John Morris, Arthurian Period Sources, Vol. 6, p145-154. Phillimore, Chichester, 1995.
8 “There is a striking resemblance between Gildas' way of describing the double crime of Maximus and the language of Sulpicius Severus in his Vita Martini. It seems impossible that it could be accidental.” Robert Vermaat, The sources on Vortigern - The Text of Gildas: de Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, footnote 20. On: Vortigern Studies 2005.
9 “We know from Orosius, as Gildas must have done, since he too read that author, that there were more British usurpers, including, in the year 407, Constantine III. But Dr. Miller has recently shown us that the reason why Gildas ignored Constantine III after his account of Maximus in I 13-14 was that the structure of his narrative would render mention of Constantine irrelevant to his account (in I 14-21) of the northern (sic) wars of the end of the fourth and first half of the fifth century.” David N Dumville, Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend, p180. In: History 62, 173-192, 1977.
10 Ibid p179
11 Ibid p191
12 Ian Wood, 'The end of Roman Britain: Continental evidence and parallels', p19, In: Lapidge, M. and Dumville, D. (eds.). Gildas: New Approaches. Woodbridge, Boydell. 1984
13 Ibid p22
14 Procopius, History of the Wars, III.2.38
15 Procopius, History of the Wars, V.3.30
16 Procopius, Secret History, 19
17 Procopius, History of the Wars, VIII.20.10