Rome’s Champion

Geoffrey Ashe points up four names in Geoffrey’s history which direct our attention to the year 469-70.[1] There is Emperor Leo, who ruled from 457 to 474. There is Pope Sulpicius, a mistake for Simplicius, who held the papacy from 468 to 483. There is Lucius Hiberius, actually the western Emperor Glycerius, mistakenly named Lucerius by Sigebert of Gembloux and misdated by him to 469 - 470. And there is Childeric: Chelric, the name Geoffrey gives to the leader of the Saxons, ally of the treacherous Mordred, is surely meant to recall the Frankish king who was Leo’s contemporary and whose name is vaguely associated with treachery and with Saxons.

Actually Chelric is the third Saxon leader in Geoffrey’s story whose name recalls the historical king of the Franks. Before him there is Duke Cheldric, who during Arthur’s first campaign brought six hundred troop-filled ships to reinforce the invaders. He fought at Bath but escaped the slaughter, only to be tracked down and slain by Cador of Cornwall. And before him there was Cherdic, who along with Octa and Ebissa arrived with troops to reinforce Hengist, in Vortigern’s day. This was before the Saxon revolt, but Vortigern’s subjects perceived what was coming and protested at pagans being allowed to settle amongst Christians, arguing this was contrary to the faith. The real Childeric was a pagan. His name, and his faith, would have been known to all of Geoffrey’s literate contemporaries, for he was the father of Clovis, the first Christian king of the Franks and the hero of Gregory of Tours’ history.

Before 470 a Roman Emperor had entered into an alliance with a pagan Frankish king against a native Gallo-Roman ruler. Childeric’s return with an imperial subsidy must, as Wallace-Hadrill remarks, have detracted from the power and authority of Syagrius. Worse was to come. In 486 Childeric’s son Clovis destroyed Syagrius and absorbed his kingdom. Gregory of Tours dates Clovis’ baptism to 496. Wallace-Hadrill suggests this may be political dating, designed to “make it appear that Clovis had undertaken all his great campaigns as a Catholic”.[2] But whether Clovis embraced Christianity in 496 or 503, there is no getting away from the fact that, at the time of his war with Syagrius, Clovis was a pagan. There is no evidence of any protest from the Roman bishops in Gaul. And this is not because the record has disappeared. There is a surviving letter from bishop Remigius of Rheims, advising the pagan king that as ruler of Roman Belgica he would be wise to maintain a good working relationship with the Roman Church. The Roman Church was clearly intent on maintaining a good working relationship with the pagan king.

All the evidence we have suggests that the replacement of the independent Gallo-Roman kingdom by a Frankish dominion was not an accident of history but an act of Imperial policy, a goal towards which the Empire and its Church had been working for decades. The concluding evidence is in Gregory’s story of the celebration of the victory of Vouillé. After the battle Clovis went to Tours to gift the church of St. Martin, the soldier saint who had aided his victory, with some of the spoils of war. And there, in St. Martin’s church, he received the clearest tokens of approbation from the Emperor Anastasius, the title of consul and the appropriate insignia. Dressed in the purple tunic and chlamys, with a diadem on his head, Clovis then rode through the streets of Tours scattering gold and silver as he passed.[3]

A seed which Emperor Leo sowed in the year 469-70 bore fruit in the next century. His crusade against the Arian Goths appeared a failure in his own lifetime, but Byzantium’s planning was long term. The Frankish dynasty re-established by Leo soon grew strong enough to repay Rome’s investment. Two emperors and over thirty years later it had crushed the rebel Syagrius and driven the Goths from Gaul.

In the Enlightenment view of European history, Gaul was lost to the Romans before the end of the fifth century, when the last remaining Roman territory was swallowed up by the expansion of the Franks. Muir’s Historical Atlas for the year 476 shows an island of pink in northern Gaul, flanked on the east by the the Franks, Burgundians and Alamans, and to the south by the Visigoths. In the next map this Roman island has disappeared beneath the green of the Franks, now covering most of Gaul right down to the Pyrenees. But a contemporary Byzantine official drawing that same map would have coloured it differently, showing a pink tide spreading over the Gallic territories once held by native rebels and heretic Goths as the victories of Clovis recovered the west for Rome.

Clovis ruled the Franks from 482 to his death in 511. It was in this period that the British succeeded in redeeming their motherland from the invader. The Saxon tide was repulsed. But the Saxons were relatives and allies of the Franks. And the Frank king Clovis was Rome’s champion, publicly acknowledged as such by the Byzantine emperor.

King Arthur, Richard Barber reminds us, is invented anew by each age in accordance with its own ideals and values. English historians in the twentieth century envisaged a Roman Arthur, striving against the German invaders who elsewhere brought the Roman west to ruin. Nennius in the ninth imagined a British champion, hammer of the Saxons, at a time when Mercian weakness gave a resurgent Gwynedd new hope of territorial restoration. And Geoffrey in the twelfth, when the Roman Church was subjecting his nation to military and propaganda assault, created an anti-Roman Arthur, champion of independent Britain against an oppressive Roman Empire asserting her unjust claim to a province she had previously abandoned.

It is true to say that each era interprets the past according to the needs of the present. But that does not mean each era invents its history from scratch. There are surviving traditions to contend with, and there are the known facts. Arthur is not an invention. Arthur is the name the Britons themselves gave to the leader of their successful resistance to the Saxons, a struggle which, according to a contemporary witness, all but ended at the siege of Badon. There really was a British resistance, therefore there really was a British leader. And he really was facing a Roman restoration, just across the channel, just as Geoffrey says

Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009

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1. Geoffrey Ashe, The Discovery of King Arthur, pp 92-95

2. J M Wallace-Hadrill, The Long-Haired Kings, p 64

3. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.38