Admiral Theodoric

In the view of the Dark Age historians, sixth century Britain is “politically dark” and must ever remain so, since the history of this period must be written from a single text, the only surviving contemporary British document. All the other source materials which might arguably have something to contribute to our understanding of this period now stand condemned as historically worthless, being too late in date and contaminated with legend. John Morris, who rejected the term Dark Age, advocated a very different approach to these despised Celtic sources. This era, he argued, was not ‘dark’ for lack of evidence, but because that evidence had not been systematically studied. The textual evidence, especially, was unusually complex. Though little contemporary documentation survives, scraps of genuinely early material have been preserved in later texts. To uncover their significance, historians must borrow from the techniques of archaeology. Just as there is a reason for every artefact being where it is found, so there is a reason for every statement in every text, and the historian’s job is to unearth that reason. And as the archaeologist must clean off his finds and relate them to each other in order to draw any conclusions from his data, so the historian must remove the accumulated distortions of the centuries to discover what these fragments originally said, and then relate their statements to each other. One statement, standing alone, is not worth much, but when a number of different texts, independent of each other, combine to tell a story which makes sense in context, then what we have is historical evidence.

His reconstruction of the career of Admiral Theodoric provides a good example of Morris’ technique. Morris pieces this story together from a variety of sources, mostly saints’ Lives of disparate dates originating from different parts of the Celtic world; Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. The texts cannot be thought to have borrowed from each other. They do not tell the same story. They each provide different parts of a story which, when combined, fit together like a jigsaw. “In theory, it might be pure coincidence that all the detail fits, but it would be a most remarkable coincidence.“1

The story opens in south Wales, in the first decades of the sixth century. Theodoric and Marcellus take part in a campaign against an Irish dominion established in Demetia, which is thereafter ruled by Agricola, the father of that Vortipor denounced by Gildas as the bad son of a good king. Vortipor’s memorial stone survives, inscribed in both Latin and Ogham. So Vortipor’s court was bilingual: The Irish weren’t expelled, they were assimilated.

Next the story moves to the western tip of Cornwall, where Theodoric destroys an Irish invasion force attempting to land at Hayle, near St. Ives. The Irish were lead by St. Fingar and Guiner who, one Life claims, was on his way to Brittany to aid his uncle Maxentius, whom Theodoric had “defeated and compelled to relinquish lands which he had recovered”2 These lands, in Brittany, had been recovered by Maxentius and his brother Budic from Marcellus, whom they killed. Budic, however, was subsequently expelled and took refuge with Agricola in Demetia, ultimately to be restored to his Breton possessions with British aid. The political norms of the period suggest it was his brother Maxentius who forced Budic into exile. The textual evidence indicates the British force which restored him was led by Theodoric, the man who had placed Agricola on his throne, for Gregory of Tours tells us that Budic named his son and heir Theodoric, a highly unusual choice of name for a Briton, for the name is Germanic. The choice would make sense if Budic were honouring the man who had restored him to his kingdom.

So we have the name Theodoric, highly unusual in a British context, linked with Marcellus, a traditional Roman name but itself unusual in this region in this period, ”not recorded for a lay notable in Gaul or Britain after the Marcellus whom the Roman nobility of Gaul tried to make emperor” in the 460s. The name Maxentius, for a layman is likewise almost unique, “recorded only for one other secular ruler in Gaul in these centuries” and “otherwise unknown to Britain or to hagiography”. And here they are all three, linked together in a number of sources, themselves quite independent of each other, “the only Marcellus and the only Maxentius ... linked with the only Theodoric in the same generation, in the separate traditions of south Wales, of Cornwall, and of Brittany.”3 Coincidence seems an inadequate explanation.

The sources in combination tell us Theodoric ended his days in Cornwall in the reign of Constantine (the tyrant denounced by Gildas as “whelp of the filthy lioness of Dumnonia”): One story names them together as two pious kings who gave Bodmin to St. Petroc. Most often he is located further west, near Truro, St. Ives and Falmouth. Lestowder, on the Helford river may preserve his name in the abbreviated form.

So who was Theodoric? His name, Morris argues, is not merely Germanic, but at this stage purely Gothic, so we have a Goth fighting for the British in the days of Emperor Arthur. German captains in that period were quite commonly employed by non-Germans, and usually recruited along with their men. Theodoric, judging from the range of his activities, would appear to have had a naval force under his command, hence Morris names him an admiral. A Gothic admiral fighting for the British makes perfect sense in this time. In 507, at the battle of Vouillé, the Visigoths of Gaul were defeated by Clovis and forced over the Pyrenees into Spain. Whilst they had held Aquitaine the Goths had maintained a Biscay fleet, which now lost its harbours. “No writer reports what happened to the ships and crews; but it is evident that a commander who had lost his homeland and his base might find it prudent to transfer all or part of his fleet to the service of the British; and Arthur’s campaigns had a use for a naval force.”4

Clovis was, of course, Rome’s sword arm, the military enforcer of Imperial Christianity in Gaul. If his contemporary, Arthur, was recruiting troops from amongst his enemies, this would obviously have political implications, implications which John Morris never got to explore. Had he lived, I think he would have amended his view that Arthur, with Ambrosius, must have fought to preserve Britain’s Roman inheritance, that there was nothing else he could have fought for. But he died prematurely, in the midst of his great work, with his Arthurian Period Sources still unfinished and unpublished.

Morris presented his Age of Arthur as a preliminary study, anticipating his history would be amended and expanded by the work of later scholars. His posthumous vilification put a full stop to any such possibility. Instead, Arthur himself has been written out of British history, and his Gothic ally Admiral Theodoric has found no takers among professional historians. There is nothing improbable in this man’s existence, each step of Theodoric’s career makes perfect sense, but the sources from which Morris composed this narrative are not the stuff from which history can be written. No reputable historian, witnessing John Morris’ fate, is likely to risk endorsing his Admiral Theodoric. And yet professional historians still can, without loss to their reputations, happily swallow Bede’s incredible tale of Caedwalla of the Gewissae.

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

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1 John Morris, Arthurian Period Sources, Vol. 3, p171

2 John Morris, Arthurian Period Sources, Vol. 3, p170

3 John Morris, Arthurian Period Sources, Vol. 3, p170

4 John Morris, The Age of Arthur, p127