The British Collapse Revisited

There is a sub-branch of history, recently returning to respectability, which sets out to examine the history that didn’t happen, to weigh the significance of particular events by asking the question “what if...?”. Counterfactual History, as it is called, has not, historically, met with universal favour among historians. But clearly it has its uses. Imagination can illuminate the historical facts, where determinism may blind us to them. For history must be written from the surviving written record, but in order to understand that record we must understand the motives of its writers, and those writers did not, on the whole, possess perfect foresight. The past that, in the event, actually happened might be very far from the future they envisaged when they wrote, and historians who do not take this into account could completely misinterpret their witness. In the case of a seminal, or worse, a solitary surviving text, the resulting distortion is potentially huge.

King Robert of England never happened. The History of the Kings of Britain, the legal case created to support Robert of Gloucester’s candidature, with its carefully crafted historical proofs, was never put to its intended use. In consequence the wealth of insight it offers into post-Roman British history has never been accessed by Dark Age historians who even now dismiss its author as a fraudulent historian, or more kindly, but no more accurately, as a writer of romantic fiction. Geoffrey of Monmouth should rather be regarded as the father of historical criticism, and one of the most brilliant propagandists who ever lived.

Justinian’s invasion of Britain never happened. The Ruin of Britain, the only surviving British document from this era, is regarded as a sermon authored by a devout Christian monk, a Dark Age Jeremiah motivated by his deep concern for the moral well-being of his nation. More accurately, Gildas is a Late Roman Lord Haw Haw.

The Ruin of Britain, like every other historical source, can only be understood within its historical context, and that context is Justinian’s Roman restoration, the sixth century recovery of the western provinces of the Empire from the illegitimate rule of barbarians and heretics. We know something of this emperor’s methods. Justinian’s military invasions were preceded by intense diplomatic manoeuvres, both overt and covert. Revolts were encouraged in the targeted states, Roman Christians reminded where their loyalties should lie, rulers denounced and threatened (mere threat could be surprisingly effective, see below). Gildas’ threats to the five tyrants and exhortations to the good priests are perfectly in accord with the known activities of Justinian’s agents on the eve of an attack. Gildas is not warning against the dangers of civil war, he is preaching a crusade, and as he himself tells us, he is not acting alone.

In the sixth century Independent Britain, the only ex-Roman province to have successfully resisted the encroaching barbarians, disintegrated through internal violence. This appears to be the universally accepted view. When Gildas wrote, that is, in 540 AD, the British still ruled Britain, but by 597, when Pope Gregory sent his emissary to the court of King Aethelbert of Kent, the English had established their dominion over the best part of the island. But how, exactly, did this come about?

Apart from Gildas, our sources for this dark, obscure, transitional period of British history are, of course, late, unreliable and doubtless contaminated with legend. But they are not all disreputably British. It is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which provides the detail, the names and dates, for the first major British reversal of the sixth century. In 552 AD Cynric, King of the West Saxons, conquered Salisbury from the British. In 577 his son and successor Ceawlin further enlarged the boundaries of the kingdom by conquering the British cities of Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath.

The Chronicle is a ninth century work written in Wessex, with a clear Wessex bias. But the highly reputable Bede, writing in Northumbria 731, gives some credence to the West Saxons’ claim to have been at the forefront of the post-Badon English assault on the British. Ceawlin, King of the West Saxons is the second in his list of English kings who ‘held empire’ south of the Humber. According to the Chronicle, the founder of this dynasty was Cerdic, who with his son Cynric came to Britain in 495 AD, with five ships, and fought with the Welsh that same day in a place called Cerdic’s-ore. The genealogy of every king of Wessex is traced by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle back to this Dark Age founder, and hence the dynasty is known as the Cerdingas. But Cerdic is a British name.

It is an accepted fact that the legendary founder of the Wessex royal line, the purported ancestor of every English monarch from Athelstan to Ethelred, and from Henry Plantagenet to Elizabeth II, bears a British name. Cerdic is identical with Caradoc, Keredic, Caractacus. It is the name borne by the British king who resisted the Claudian invasion and was taken captive to Rome around 50 AD. Cynric and Ceawlin are equally dubious, particularly as these names are found paired in a context that is clearly not Saxon. Cynric is the Welsh Cynyr, or Cunorix, and a stone inscription found in Wroxeter, dated to 460 - 475, commemorates a Cunorix son of Coline, who is suspected of being Irish.1 Cerdic’s immediate forbears include the clearly invented Gewis, and beyond that they are not, apparently, his ancestors at all, they are lifted from the traditions of other Saxon royal lines.2 Whoever compiled the story of the origins of Wessex was clearly faced with a Cerdic who was too entrenched with tradition to be got rid of, but as John Morris says: “A ruler with a British name, with no ancient tradition of English forebears or English descendants, is plainly British.”3

We could deduce that there is something dodgy about the Cerdingas from our most reputable of English sources. Bede, who prefers to omit the entire sixth century from his history of England from the Roman conquest to his own time, is also strangely reticent about the West Saxons. He includes Ceawlin in his list of English kings who gained imperium, but gives us no clue how he achieved that, and tells us nothing at all about his ancestors or descendants. Later West Saxon kings are brought into his story; Cuichelm who sent an assassin to murder King Edwin, Cynigils, first of his line to accept the Faith of Christ, young Caedwalla who gifted St. Wilfrid with Isle of Wight and went off to Rome to die, but no attempt is made to link these with Ceawlin, genetically or politically. There is no mention of Cerdic, founder of dynasty; the only Cerdic in Bede’s history is a British king who murdered the father of English saint.4 Of course Bede does not have to include such information. He is not writing a modern history, he is making a case, arranging a selection of the known facts to demonstrate that the wicked Britons were defeated by God’s will so that the new Chosen People could inherit the land. The story of the foundation of Wessex clearly had nothing to contribute to his argument. But then it wouldn’t have, if Cerdic was a Briton.

So, are the victories of Cynric and Ceawlin really the first stage in the post-Badon English conquest of Britain, or just incidents in the sixth century British civli war? If the latter, then we can’t really say that civil war cost the Britons their land, since for one British dynasty at least, it led to territorial expansion and a sixth century imperium, and eventually to the rulership of the whole British Isles.

The collapse of the north would appear to conform more closely to the traditional pattern. Bede tells us how Aethelferth of Bernicia overran the British kingdoms like a latterday Saul, slaughtering or enslaving the inhabitants and making their land tributary to the English or ready for English settlement. British tradition remembers civil war and political assassination among the northern rulers prior to this invasion. But here also there are details preserved in the record which suggest that the sixth century collapse cannot be blamed entirely on the inborn stupidity of the natives.

Lacking the evidence a historian would choose to have, we are obliged to turn to what has actually survived. In the twelfth century the Anglo-Norman bishop of Glasgow commissioned a Cistercian monk to write a hagiography of his city’s patron saint. Jocelin of Furness tells us he wrote up his Life of Kentigern from two earlier written accounts, seasoning with Roman salt the barbarity of these originals. Jocelin’s Life claims that Kentigern was made bishop of Cambria by the king and clergy of that country at a time when this kingdom stretched from sea to sea like the wall built by Severus. But when a wicked tyrant, Morken, gained the throne Kentigern was physically attacked and fled in fear of his life. In exile the saint continued his holy work, becoming a bishop in a foreign land. He visited Rome seven times in order to correct the deficiencies of his learning and consecration, for he was aware that the Church in Britain had fallen into error through the assaults of heathens and heretics. One such heretic fetched up on his own doorstep, an eloquent pilgrim who claimed to be a preacher of the truth, intent on the salvation of souls. But Kentigern, questioning the man, discovered him to be a Pelagian, and when the sinner obstinately refused to renounce that ruinous sect, the saint expelled him from his diocese and cursed him to death. The Pelagian drowned while crossing a river. Meanwhile, the saint's own countrymen were suffering terribly on account of the wrong done to him. But God in his mercy raised up a new king, a most Christian man named Rederech, and he perceived that the remedy for his country's woes was to restore Kentigern to his rightful place. Instructed by a divine vision, the saint consented to vacate his current bishopric and return to his original see. After a prosperous rule, filled with signs and miracles, the saint eventually died at a great old age and was buried in his church in Glasgow.

The 'barbarous originals' from which Jocelin compiled his hagiography have not survived, but we must allow that he did have such sources since his story includes the names, elsewhere recorded, of genuinely sixth century characters and we can hardly credit that an Anglo-Norman monk went trawling through British and Irish histories and genealogies to come up with names of the right era. ‘Nennius’ names Rhydderch and Morcant among the kings who fought with the mighty Urien of Reged against the pagan Bernicians, and accuses Morcant of being behind the assassination of Urien. In the genealogies of the northern kings Urien and Morcant are distantly related, both being descendants of Coel Hen, ie Old King Cole. Riderch son of Tutagual is listed in the genealogy of the kings of Strathclyde, and King Roderc son of Tothal is made a contemporary of Columba in Adomnan's seventh century Life of that saint.

There is independent evidence for a sixth century bishop Kentigern, not actually in Rome, but in the Roman Church. The bishop of Senlis, near Paris, is recorded as Gonotiernus at the council of Orléans in 549 and as Gonothigernus at the council of Paris held somewhere between 552 and 573.5 This is the same name. The -tigern element is also found in Vortigern, and in a number of other British and Irish names of this era. The name indicates that this Gallic bishop originated either in the British Isles or in Brittany. Of course there could have been two Kentigerns living in exactly the same time period, but the name is otherwise unknown. The see of Senlis was within the Merovingian kingdom of Paris, which after the death of Clovis was ruled by his son Childebert. Also listed among the bishops attending this Paris council is one Samson, whose see is not given but who is believed to be Samson of Dol in Brittany, whose seventh century Life associates him with King Childebert.

If this bishop of Senlis is indeed Kentigern of Glasgow, then a northern British king recruited a Roman cleric from the Merovingian territory to preside over the church in his kingdom. Such a move would have political implications. And as Nikolai Tolstoy points out, there may be some significance in the fact that a poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen calls this northern king ritech hael ruyfadur fit ‘Rhydderch the Generous, defender of the faith’.6

Riderch was another of those sixth century British kings who appears to have done well out of civil war. This story is analysed in Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin. The original of the Arthurian magician, Tolstoy argues, was a sixth century druid Myrddin, bard to the pagan prince Gwenddolau of the Selgovae, a northern British tribe who were never Romanised. Gwenddolau was attacked and killed by his cousins Peredur and Gwrgi of York in the battle of Arderydd, famed for its savagery. The Welsh Annals date the battle to 573, and record that ‘Merlin went mad’. Poetry in The Black Book of Carmarthen depicts him hiding in the forest of Celydon from the men of Riderch, who are hunting him down in order to kill him. No record recounts the causes of the battle of Arderydd, and there is no early claim that Riderch took part in it. But it would seem he was the real beneficiary of this fratricidal war.

The site of this battle was discovered in the nineteenth century by W F Skene, who found it was still remembered in the oral tradition of the locality - as a battle between the Picts and the Romans:

"...the tradition of the country was that a great battle was fought here between the Romans and the Picts who held the camp, in which the Romans were victorious; that the camp was defended by three hundred men, who surrendered it, and were all put to the sword and buried in the orchard of the Upper Moat, at a place which he [the local farmer] showed me."7

The traditional view among historians is that the British polity collapsed into civil war due to the absence of Rome’s guiding hand. The totality of the evidence, including the contemporary evidence of Gildas and Procopius, suggests rather that it was Rome’s presence in Britain which precipitated these conflicts. Civil war was a weapon in Justinian’s armoury, part of the softening-up process which preceded his Roman recoveries. Of course by the time of Arderydd Justinian had been dead some eight years. But his gold would still have been working away, in those areas where he had invested.

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

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1 See August Hunt, Cunedda as Vortigern

2 See, for example, Wessex

3 John Morris, The Age of Arthur, p104

4 St. Hilda - see Bede, A History of the English Church and People, IV.23

5 The date is often given as 557. More certainly, an earlier and a later council of Paris was held in 552 and 573 respectively, see Gallic Councils 511–680 on Gallia et Frankia, An Online Encyclopedia of Late Antique Gaul.

6 Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin, p46

7 Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin, p52