We cannot expect to understand any text outside the context in which it is
written, and the context within which Gildas is judged is a figment of
the Enlightenment imagination. Dark Age Britain is pictured as a world
apart, Gildas as a man of this dark era, knowing nothing beyond his own
small world. But the archaeological evidence proves extensive trade between
Britain and the eastern Roman Empire, and the plague which struck Constantinople
in 542 reached the British Isles scarcely a year later. It plainly did
not reach these parts by first traversing the continent of Europe: it arrived
Gildas is not inhabiting some lost world of faerie, located outside normal time and space. He is a man of his age, and that age is the age of Justinian, the ultimate Restitutor Orbis.
Justinian’s reign officially dates from 527, though it is accepted he was already effectively ruler of the Empire during the last years of his uncle, Emperor Justin. He inherited a Roman dominion which had, in modern perspective, shrunk to just its eastern half, but the eastern emperors still saw themselves as rightful rulers of the west. The barbarian kings who held power there did so only as Roman appointees, or as usurpers whose rule should ideally be overthrown. Justinian began his restoration of Roman rule with an attack on Vandal Africa.
The story of Justinian’s wars is told by Procopius, private secretary to general Belisarius, whom he accompanied on his campaigns to Africa, Italy and Persia. Which is to say Procopius was not only of the right time, he was in the right place. So for this period in history, at least as far as the Roman Empire is concerned, we have the perfect historical source, not just a primary source but an eye-witness account of the events described.
It was Belisarius who led the first campaign of Justinian’s restoration. The invasion force sailed from Constantinople in 533 AD, around the time of the summer solstice. Justinian had already taken the precaution of eliciting the support of the Ostrogothic rulers of Italy for the invasion, so Belisarius was able to land in Sicily, which island the Vandal king had unwisely ceded to the Ostrogoths in return for an annual subsidy. And it was in Sicily that Belisarius learnt - from the servant of a friend of Procopius - that the Vandal fleet was then engaged in suppressing a revolt in Sardinia. The Vandal king, Gelimer, actually had a choice of two revolts to deal with, both of them encouraged, supported and financed by Justinian. With no Vandal fleet to oppose him, Belisarius landed his army on African soil and within a week had taken control of Gelimer’s capital, Carthage. The Vandal state, which had controlled North Africa for ninety five years, collapsed in a matter of months, under the combined pressure of Belisarius’ generalship and Justinian’s cunning diplomacy. Though it was to be another fifteen years before the Berber tribes of the interior were finally ‘pacified’, by April 534 a Roman administration was once again established in North Africa, Gelimer was a pensioner of Justinian and 2,000 Vandals were conscripted into the Imperial army.
This easy victory over the Vandals encouraged further attacks on the west which ultimately bankrupted the eastern Empire, forced to fight on two fronts when the “Endless Peace” with Persia, which Justinian bought at a cost of 11,000 pounds of gold, broke down after only eight years. In 540 Shah Khusro sacked Antioch, in the same year that Gildas penned his warning to the British Tyrants, and Ravenna, capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy, fell to the Romans.
The Roman reconquest of Italy, begun in 535, initially appeared an easier prospect than that of Vandal Africa, but the Goths recovered from the initial shock of Justinian’s attack and fought back doggedly. In the eighteen years of war which followed the civilized kingdom which Theodoric the Great had established, with its dual legal system allowing Romans and Goths to live together in peace, was obliterated. Plundering armies from both sides shattered the Italian economy. The city of Rome itself changed hands repeatedly, and endured three sieges. The final battle between the two forces took place in October of 553 and lasted, according to Procopius, for two whole days: “they kept at it with the fury of wild beasts by reason of their bitter hatred of each other.”1 The Empire’s victory left Italy a war-torn ruin, and reduced her ancient capital city to little more than a village.
But if the restoration of Roman rule was not necessarily a Good Thing, it was very real. Indeed it was the major feature of political life in the period. By the time of Justinian’s death in 565 AD the Roman forces had recovered Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands, the coast of the Balkans, North Africa and the southern coast of Spain, including the Pillars of Hercules. The Mediterranean was once again a Roman lake. Inland, Rome’s allies the Catholic kings of the Franks had expanded their power over the whole of Gaul, conquering and absorbing both Arian German kingdoms and independent Gallic regions and confining the once-mighty Visigoths to Spain and Septimania. The crusade against the Arian Goths, which appeared such a dismal failure in the time of Leo, was by the end of the sixth century brought to a satisfactory conclusion, largely through the efforts of Justinian. In 589 AD the Spanish king Recared, weakened by Imperial attacks from without and the fifth-column activities of Roman churchmen from within his kingdom, was forced to abandon the Arian faith of his ancestors and submit to Rome.
Which leaves only one lost western province unaccounted for: Britain.
Britain was a distant and half-mythical island to Caesar’s contemporaries and, it would seem, to Justinian’s. Procopius was so confused about its geography he apparently thought it was two islands, one called Britannia and one Brittia.2 But ignorant and parochial though he was, still Procopius is not only a contemporary source, he is an eye-witness, living in close proximity to the eastern Empire’s most powerful men. What he reports is what he directly observed, on campaign with his master Belisarius and in the corridors of power in Constantinople. With regard to Britain, what he reports is this:
1) Britain was never recovered after the overthrow of Constantine III but continued to be ruled by ‘tyrants’.3 Tyrants are illegitimate rulers, rulers not appointed by Rome. Thus Procopius testifies that at a time when Rome was engaged in the reconquest of lost provinces she still regarded Britain as one such.
2) Justinian - whom Procopius cordially hated - drained the treasury by lavishing money on barbarians, so that they came to him from all quarters to receive his lavish presents: “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.”4 Britain may have been a dim and distant region to Procopius, but Justinian’s gold, used to further Roman objectives in areas not directly controlled by him, was put to use here also.
3) Visitors from the island of Britain were present in one of the embassies attending Justinian’s court, and for a very definite purpose: “The island of Brittia is inhabited by three very numerous nations, each having one king over it. And the names of these nations are the Angili, the Frissones and the Brittones, the last being named from the island itself. And so great appears to be the population of these nations that every year they emigrate thence in large companies with their women and children and go to the land of the Franks. And the Franks allow them to settle in the part of their land which appears to be more deserted, and by this means they say that they are winning over the island. Thus it actually happened that not long ago the king of the Franks, in sending some of his intimates on an embassy to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, sent with them some of the Angili, thus seeking to establish his claim that the island was ruled by him.”5 So, while Justinian’s gold was working away in Britain, a Frank king sent a delegation to the Emperor which included Angles from the island of Britain, in order to ‘establish his claim’.
If the island was a lost Roman province, now ruled by tyrants, who would the rightful ruler be, if Justinian endorsed the Frank king’s claim? Who would a loyal son of the Church, such as Gildas, regard as the legitimate ruler of Britain? Gildas, who in his address to the wicked priests states “One of us is right to say: ‘we greatly desire that the enemies of the church be our enemies also, with no kind of alliance, and that her friends and protectors be not only our allies but our fathers and masters too’.”6
Gildas was one of a group of religious - he tells us himself that “by their holy prayers they support my weakness from total collapse”7 Later saints’ Lives claim Gildas was educated by St. Illtud, along with St. Samson and St. Paul Aurelian,8 and that these three later crossed into Brittany, where Paul and Samson had friendly dealings with the Frank kings. The Life of Paul Aurelian says that Paul’s patron Victor was “a pious Christian who ruled by authority of the Lord emperor Philibert”9, that is, Childebert of Paris, who ruled from 511 to 558.10 The Life of Samson relates that saint’s adventures at the court of ‘King Hiltbert’, believed to be the same Childebert. But Dark Age historians do not like to take later saints’ Lives into account when writing the political history of this dark era, so lets return to Procopius.
In the spring of 537 AD the Ostrogoths laid siege to Belisarius in the city of Rome. The siege lasted a year and nine days, and towards the end of it the Goths, having failed to prevent the revictualling of the city, offered a peace conference. Procopius reports the negotiations as if he was present, as he may well have been. He says that the Goths offered to cede Sicily, and Belisarius offered Britain in exchange. I’ll say that again: in 538 AD, according to a contemporary authority, the Romans offered to give Britain to the Ostrogoths. The decision was clearly Justinian’s, for when the Goths tried to include Campania and Naples in the deal Belisarius refused to discuss the proposal on the grounds that he had no authority to do so. Then clearly he did have authority to cede “the whole island of Britain, which belongs to us from of old and is far larger than Sicily.”11 These are the words Procopius puts into Belisarius’ mouth, and they may have been the very words he spoke. The island of Britain belonged to Rome of old and was still hers to dispose of. Just two years before Gildas wrote The Ruin of Britain, in which he traces the origins of all his country’s woes to her wicked, heretical rebellion against the Holy Romans, a Roman Emperor publicly proclaimed that he had a perfect right to turn the long-lost province of Britannia over to German rule.
Gildas, writing in 540, is expecting something other than a heavenly host to reinforce his faction in the war against the Pelagians, a war to be waged initially by a group so small that the holy mother doesn’t even see her remaining sons; a group which, he warns, will also be swept away if it does not prosecute this conflict with sufficient zeal. He is writing at a time when a contemporary witness testifies that Justinian claimed Britain was rightfully part of the Empire, that it was in his power to select who should rule it. He is writing during the reign of the Frank king Theudebert, whom Justinian paid to attack the Ostrogoths in Italy. He is writing within two years of Belisarius’ proposal to the Ostrogoths that they should cede Sicily in exchange for Britain. Britain was within Justinian’s sights but not within his grasp. Operating this far north he would need to use proxies. What Gildas is surely expecting is a Frankish force crossing the channel or a fleet of displaced Arians arriving from the Mediterranean, or possibly both.
It never materialised. In the 540s the tide of history turned against the Restitutor Orbis. A deadly plague hit the Empire, killing around a quarter of its inhabitants, with disastrous effects on its tax revenues. The war in Italy dragged on throughout that decade and beyond, the Frank king proved an unreliable ally and the collapse of the Endless Peace with the Persians forced Justinian to divert resources to the defence of his eastern frontiers. But at the very start of the decade, when he wrote The Ruin of Britain, Gildas could not have foreseen this, and nor could any of his addressees.
To the Dark Age historians, the sixth century is an obscure period of British history. Lacking the contemporary sources from which alone a history can be written they are forced to conclude that what happened in this transitional period, when Independent Britain finally disintegrated and the ground was laid for the foundation of England, is simply unknowable. Yet they are quite sure they know who is to blame. The same sub-Roman Britons who failed to leave us a written record also failed to create a viable state. Deprived of the light of Roman civilization, incapable of maintaining the fruits of progress and discipline, the ruling class of Britain dissolved into warring factions and so allowed the Saxons to take over their land.
Dark Age historians may convince themselves this is a conclusion arrived at from a study of the allowable evidence, but actually it is merely a variant of Bede’s propaganda history of the foundation of England. After the God-given Roman victory of Badon, Bede tells us, the wicked Britons abandoned truth and justice to the point their very existence was forgotten and gave themselves up to unspeakable crimes. So God abandoned them, and chose a new race to inhabit their beautiful island. A hundred years later Pope Gregory, motivated by nothing more than a concern for Saxon souls, sent Bishop Augustine to Kent.
Geoffrey tells an entirely different story. Badon was Arthur’s victory, Rome had nothing to do with it. It was only after Arthur had defeated the Saxons and established his dominion over the whole of northern Europe that Rome reappeared on the scene. Her challenge to Arthur’s rule led ultimately to Camlann, but Independent Britain did not collapse at this point. It was the rule of the treacherous and worthless Keredic which opened Britain to her enemies. The Saxons were the ultimate beneficiaries, but it was not God who gave them the land. Britain fell to the combined forces of the Franks under Isembard, nephew of King Louis, and an African fleet under Gormund.
Geoffrey invented nothing, so where did he get this from? Irish tradition recalled an African invasion of Ireland, long before the Roman period. But the name Gormund is Germanic, and Geoffrey sets his story in the sixth century, when North Africa actually was inhabited by a Germanic people who maintained a powerful fleet.
Of course Geoffrey’s story is fantastic, as is Bede’s. But Geoffrey’s is a fantasy of an entirely different order. In The History of the Kings of Britain there is no intention to deceive. Geoffrey openly demonstrates how his narrative is constructed. He constantly invites the reader to refer to his sources. His entertaining story is not designed to disguise the truth, but rather, to illuminate it. No historian now suggests that sixth century Britain actually was invaded by a Frankish force from the Continent or a Germanic fleet from the Mediterranean, but the surviving record clearly reveals that this is exactly what Justinian and his allies were laying plans for in 540 AD, when Gildas wrote his sermon.
Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009
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1 Procopius, History of the Wars, VIII, 35.32
2 Procopius, History of the Wars, VIII.20.1-5
3 Procopius, History of the Wars, III.2.38
4 Procopius, Secret History, 19
5 Procopius, History of the Wars, VIII.20.6-10
6 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 92.3
7 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 26.4
8 see John Morris, Arthurian Period Sources, Vol. 3, p73
9 John Morris, The Age of Arthur, p253
10 see John Morris, The Age of Arthur, p253
11 Procopius, History of the Wars, VI, 6.27-32