the view of John Morris, Arthur was “a mighty shadow, a figure looming large
behind every record of his time, yet never clearly seen.”1 In the view
of the Dark Age historians, there are no such records. The period of British
Independence, when the natives ruled their own country, is a Dark Age, not
only because it is contemptibly inferior to the Roman dominion which preceded
it, but also on account of the deplorable lack of contemporary documentation
which alone would enable a genuine history of the period to be written. The
heroic past recounted in later Welsh, Cornish and Breton tradition is pure
fantasy; Arthur was invented to fill a blank in British history.
We could put that another way: For the supposed years of Arthur's lifetime, the last decades of the fifth century and the first decades of the sixth, Britain has no history. All we have is a gap.
If there is a piece missing from the jigsaw, does that make the picture indecipherable? Every gap has edges. British history in the earlier fifth century is not really so obscure - it would be, if we had to rely on Gildas, but fortunately we don’t. Nor is mid sixth century Britain as politically dark as some would have us believe, since in addition to Gildas we have Procopius. We know what happened before and after Arthur, and we know what was happening nearby, in the same period.
If history can only be written from the written record, still that doesn't excuse historians for dispensing with logic. The lack of a British record does not prove Britain an historical 'special case'. Her lost history cannot have departed far from the general run of history. Arthur's Britain was an island, not an hermetically sealed alternative universe. It was divided from mainland Europe by the same narrow, navigable channel that divides us still. In the ancient world, when water transportation was the cheapest and easiest way of moving people and goods, this was a highway, not a barrier. South Britain and northern Gaul were a cultural continuum even before the Roman invasion, according to Julius Caesar, and had been politically united for four centuries by the time Britain gained her independence. Nor did political contact cease at that point, as the written record amply demonstrates. The peoples on either side of the channel were of the same ethnicity and subject to the same historical forces and they were still talking to each other. The history of Britain in the deepest depths of the Dark Ages cannot be divorced from the history of Late Roman Gaul, and that history is known.
The last recorded political contact between Britain and Gaul in the fifth century is the Riothamus expedition in support of Emperor Leo's crusade against the Arians. A force of twelve thousand Britons under their king Riothamus was recruited by Leo's western colleague Anthemius, Jordanes tells us: It arrived by way of the ocean, met the Visigothic king Euric in battle and was annihilated. This was in 470 AD, the critical year to which Geoffrey of Monmouth draws our attention.
In consequence of Leo's failed Roman restoration, the political map of Europe was redrawn - as far as Rome is concerned, in just the manner that Geoffrey describes; all that remained of Roman Imperial territory was, effectively, the Italian peninsula. The rest of the western empire was now ruled independently by German Arian heretics, the largest kingdom being that of the Visigoths under Euric. Northern Gaul, however, remained independent of both Romans and Germans, under the rule of Syagrius. But in this same critical year Rome had sealed the doom of this independent Gallo-Roman kingdom, planting in northern Gaul a new German ally of Rome, the Franks under King Childeric, like a wasp’s egg which would ultimately hatch and consume its paralysed host.
In 486 Childeric's son Clovis attacked and defeated Syagrius, who fled to Alaric, king of the Visigoths. But Alaric was so afraid of Clovis, the Goths being a timid race, that he turned Syagrius over to him rather than risk war with the Franks - so Gregory of Tours tells us. "When Clovis had Syagrius in his power he ordered him to be imprisoned. As soon as he had seized the kingdom of Syagrius he had him killed in secret."2
Meanwhile the bulk of the Gallo-Roman population was subject to the rule of the Arian Visigoths. Many longed for the Franks to come and take over the government, according to Gregory. The rule of the Goths entailed dreadful sufferings for all who refused to subscribe to their heresy. Innocent Catholics were beheaded, priests were imprisoned, bishops exiled or executed, churches hedged about with briars to make it difficult for the people to enter. For confirmation he refers us to a letter of Sidonius Apollinaris to Bishop Basilius.
This letter is a request for Basilius to use his influence with King Euric to secure the right of ordination for bishops now living under Gothic rule, so that they might replace their own numbers as necessary. Sidonius laments that where sees are left vacant after a bishop's death, congregations, left fatherless, scatter and are lost and the very church buildings collapse from neglect and become overgrown with brambles - which is a little different form the picture Gregory paints.
Sidonius Apollinaris was himself one of those bishops sent into exile by King Euric, punishment, it seems, for his part in Clermont's stiff resistance, lead by his brother-in-law Ecdicius. Packed off to a remote country villa in the Pyrenees, the torments of his imprisonment were exacerbated by two elderly Gothic women gossiping outside his window while he was trying to sleep. Released after a short time he made his way to Euric's court in Bordeaux, where he was forced to suffer the painful indignity of being ignored. On returned to his see in Clermont, his friends, fearing his exclusion from the corridors of power was causing him to slide into depression, persuaded him to collect his letters for publication. Posterity owes them a debt of gratitude.
It is Sidonius Apollinaris who sums up for us, in pithy statements, the predicament of the Gallo-Roman nobility of this era: "If the (Roman) State is powerless to succour, ... our nobility is determined to follow your lead, and give up their country or the hair of their heads"3 "...if we cannot keep them (the Gallo-Roman population) by treaty for the Roman State, we may at least hold them by religion for the Roman Church."4 His own life follows pattern he describes. A Roman patriot and orator, prefect of the City of Rome in 468-9 AD, he assisted in the defence of his native city only to see it surrendered to Gothic rule and his own Roman citizenship effectively cancelled by imperial decision. Within a matter of years he had attained a post within the Gallic Church, that last remnant of the Imperial bureaucracy where, in true Augustinian tradition, worldly rank was instantly convertible into ecclesiastical office - on the evidence of his own letters he was hardly the obvious choice for a bishopric. It was by this means, by control of the Imperial Church in Gaul, that the Gallo-Roman political elite as a class held on to its wealth and position through the Visigothic period and beyond. Sidonius’ own family were still a power in the Auvergne region in the later sixth century, and were clearly well known to Gregory of Tours, their fellow Auvergnian, who cordially hated them.
The picture Bishop Gregory paints of Gothic rule is at odds with contemporary evidence. The Arian Goths never did subscribe to the Augustinian notion of forced conversion. Indeed the most famous Gothic ruler, Theodoric the Great, is on record as stating that “We cannot order a religion, because no one can be forced to believe against his will."5 Nor is it possible to put this discrepancy down to Gregory's ignorance, a hundred years after the events he describes. He refers us to Sidonius' letter to Bishop Basilius, which we can read for ourselves and observe that he patently misrepresents its contents. And he records a dispute between himself and an Arian, envoy of the Spanish king and "a man of low intelligence, untrained in logical argument", during which the heretic criticised Gregory's vituperative language, stating: "You must not blaspheme against a faith which you yourself do not accept. You notice that we who do not believe the things which you believe nevertheless do not blaspheme against them."6 Gregory, trained in logical argument as he was, held that his own belief in the Holy Trinity was proved true by the fact that the wicked heresiarch Arius died on the toilet, when his entrails emptied through his back passage. The Goths, then, were not the oppressive tyrants Gregory makes them out to be, nor is it likely that the Gallo-Romans under their rule eagerly awaited the conquest of Clovis, given what Gregory himself has to tell us about this first Christian King of the Franks.
The most famous incident is the 'vase of Soissons' story. In Gregory's narrative this is placed after the murder of Syagrius but before Clovis' conversion. At that time he still plundered churches, and from one he and his band had looted a vessel of great size and magnificence, which the bishop - Gregory doesn't say which bishop - asked to have returned. Clovis wished to oblige, but was apparently bound by Frankish rules governing the distribution of booty. He had to ask his men for the vase, requesting it be given to him over and above his normal share. This anti-egalitarian stance met with the approval of the more rational of his freebooters, who opined that both they and the booty were entirely in his power, but one reckless soul replied in outrage that he should have no more than his fair share, and smashed his axe down on the ewer, reducing it at once to divisible scrap metal. Clovis concealed his intent, patiently waiting a year, then assembled his troop on the parade ground. Prior to a military engagement, it appears, the commander's power was absolute. Taking advantage of this, Clovis approached the man in question and threw his weapons to the ground, claiming they were poorly maintained, and as he stooped to pick them up Clovis smashed an axe down on his head saying "thus you did to my vase in Soissons".7
Further axe murders followed after Clovis' conversion. First on Gregory's list is that of Chloderic, son of King Sigibert, who fought with Clovis at Vouillé. He was Clovis’ nephew, if we are to take literally Clovis’ own statement that Sigibert was his brother -and it seems logical to assume that the polygamous King Childeric, exiled for wantonness in Gregory’s own account, did not die leaving the fifteen-year-old Clovis as his sole heir. Sigibert was lamed through a battle injury, according to Gregory, and so Clovis sent secretly to Chloderic, saying "your father is old and he is lame in one leg. If he were to die, his kingdom would come to you of right and my alliance would come with it." Gregory then remarks that Chloderic began to plot his father's death, led astray, not by Clovis incitement, but by his lust for power. Once the deed was done and the kingdom seized, Chloderic soon discovered that in fact Clovis' alliance did not come with it. As, presumably, they had earlier agreed, Chloderic informed Clovis of the situation and invited him to send his envoys to select whatever he wanted out of Sigibert's treasure. Clovis claimed he wanted nothing, but sent the envoys anyway, just to see the stuff. Whilst Chloderic was displaying the treasure to them, with his hands in the chest, one of the envoys split his skull with an axe. The unworthy son thus shared the fate of his father, Gregory remarks, and meanwhile the very worthy Clovis presented himself to the now kingless people and declared himself blameless; Chloderic had put it about that he wanted Sigibert murdered but he'd been out sailing at the time, and as for Chloderic himself, he had been killed whilst displaying his treasure by "somebody or other. I take no responsibility for what has happened. It is not for me to shed the blood of one of my fellow kings, for that is a crime". Clovis went on to suggest that the people should now accept him as their king, which they did, Gregory commenting that: "Day in day out God submitted the enemies of Clovis to his dominion and increased his power, for he walked before Him with an upright heart and did what was pleasing in His sight."8 This wording, funnily enough, refers us to the biblical passage, 1 Kings 3.6-12, in which Solomon asks God for the gift of wisdom, that he might be worthy to rule his kingdom.
The next enemy God submitted to Clovis was King Chararic, executed along with his son for having failed to join Clovis in his attack on Syagrius - he was waiting to see who would win, intending to offer the hand of friendship to the victor. The next axe murder, however, was King Ragnachar, who did join with Clovis against Syagrius. Gregory tells us he was a blood-relation of Clovis, and a womaniser with a best friend who was just as bad - so clearly he deserved to die. Clovis bribed Ragnachar’s own bodyguard to betray him. When he and his brother Ricchar were brought before him in bonds Clovis expressed outrage at the disgrace Ragnachar had brought on the Frankish people by allowing himself to be so humiliated, and split his skull with an axe. Then he turned to Ricchar and declared that if he had stood by his brother this could never have happened to him, and killed him the same way. After this the traitors discovered the bribes they'd received, in the form of gold jewellery, were actually plated bronze. They complained to Clovis, who said this was the kind of gold men deserved who deliberately lured their lord to his death, and they were lucky he didn't torture them to death. At which, says Gregory, they begged forgiveness, saying it was enough for them that they were allowed to live. Then we learn that there was a third brother who was also killed by Clovis, though Gregory doesn’t tell us whether this one was bound and taunted first. After his murder Clovis took over the brothers’ kingdom, no doubt God willing.
This is not the full list of Clovis’ kin murders, for Gregory goes on to say:
In the same way he encompassed the death of many other kings and blood-relations of his whom he suspected of conspiring against his kingdom. By doing this he spread his dominion over the whole of Gaul. One day when he had called a general assembly of his subjects he is said to have made the following remark about the relatives whom he had destroyed: 'How sad a thing it is that I live among strangers like some solitary pilgrim, and that I have none of my own relations left to help me when disaster threatens!' He said this not because he grieved for their deaths, but because in his cunning way he hoped to find some relative still in the land of the living whom he could kill.9
The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908 10 would have us believe that these shocking stories Gregory recounts are mere oral tales, the product of the barbarian imagination, of no historical worth. And it is true that Gregory lards his history with slanderous gossip, some of it demonstrably false. But on the other hand we know that the Merovingian system of inheritance did result in continual fratricide among the royal family. Gregory also tells us that two of Clovis' sons killed two of his grandsons when the boys were only ten and seven years old, and no historian appears to doubt the truth of this. And he does not intentionally repeat these stories to Clovis' discredit. Clovis is to Gregory what Edwin is to Bede, the hero of his narrative and the champion of his Church. He didn't make this stuff up. This is how Clovis was remembered in later times. And it is this man, with this reputation, that the Gallo-Romans under Gothic rule looked to for rescue, so Gregory tells us. And he gives us an example: Rodez.
In Gregory's narrative this story comes immediately after an account of Clovis' meeting with King Alaric, Euric's successor, at which the two swore eternal friendship to each other, ie, some little time before Vouillé. The story begins with: "At that time a great many people in Gaul were very keen on having the Franks as their rulers. It was as a direct result of this that Quintianus, the Bishop of Rodez, fell into disfavour and was driven out of his city. The townsfolk started saying to him: 'If you had your way, the Franks would take over our territory'." So, St. Quintianus was one of those fifth columnists whose plotting facilitated Clovis' conquest of Gaul. The Goths suspected him, Gregory tells us, the townspeople openly accused him, and Gregory himself has effectively admitted the charge. The end result was that the wicked people of Rodez plotted to assassinate their saintly bishop and he, not being the stuff of which martyrs are made, fled "with the more trustworthy among his attendants."11 He ended up in Clermont where, according to Gregory, he was once again made bishop, four years after the death of Clovis, ie in 515 AD.
So there we have it. The great many people who were keen to be ruled by the Franks were, in this case, one bishop and some of his attendants. The vast majority of his flock, we are not surprised to discover, preferred the rule of a tolerant Goth to that of a psychopathic axe murderer. Unfortunately for them God, or at any rate the Empire and its Church, favoured Clovis.
The history of fifth century Gaul, in the view of Enlightenment-biased historians of the last century, was the story of the slow death of the Western Roman Empire. Rome didn’t fall to Alaric in 410 AD, she fell piecemeal. The barbarian tide washed over the Rhine and the Danube and slowly submerged the superior culture of the ancient world. After the last Western Roman Emperor was dethroned in 476 a corner of Roman Gaul still rose above the flood, but by 486 all was lost. The Roman Empire in Gaul finally ended when the Frank king Clovis destroyed the kingdom of Syagrius. This historical perspective would have astonished Gregory of Tours.
History serves the needs of the present, and it tends to get distorted for that reason. The term Dark Ages is still with us, and a great deal of Enlightenment prejudice has survived along with it. The horrid vision of barbarian hordes, streaming into the civilized Roman Empire bent on its destruction, has not disappeared from western consciousness, though historians of this period are perfectly aware that it didn't happen like that. In fifth century Gaul there were indeed those who were bent on the Empire's destruction, but they were not the Germans. It was the bacaudae, the native peasantry in revolt, who attempted to overthrow Roman rule. How much sympathy there was for them among townsmen and the nobility it is difficult to determine, but there were some who spoke out on their behalf, primarily devout Christians of a non-Imperial persuasion. As for the Germans, there were those who supported the Empire, and those who opposed it, and the same group could switch between these alternatives, depending on the deal on offer. The Gallo-Roman elite on the whole upheld the Empire - but which Empire? Constantine III, Jovinus, Avitus, all enjoyed widespread support. We have it on record that the nobility of Gaul conceived a plan to revive the western empire by taking over control of it themselves - with Gothic support. This was a rescue which the East, and the Italians, could not countenance. Ultimately the East chose, for Gaul, the rule of the pagan Franks whose king Clovis converted to the Imperial faith at the end of the century - that is, if Gregory of Tours is to be believed. He claims Clovis was baptised in 496, the year before Badon. More recent scholarship puts the date as late as 508, a year after Vouillé.12
In Gaul at the start of the fifth century there was no simple division into two sides; relations between the German tribes and the various Roman factions were a shifting kaleidoscope of alliances and intrigues. But by the start of the sixth century the political map had simplified. Now there were just two political factions in Gaul. On the one side was the Eastern Empire and its tool, the Franks under Clovis, along with those Gallo-Romans, churchmen and laity, who still believed in the rule of Empire. On the other side were the Goths, and all those Gallo-Romans whose imperial loyalties had dissolved. If that description fitted a sizeable chunk of the Gallo-Roman elite in the days of Arvandus, we can be pretty sure it covered a substantial majority in some Gallic regions by the start of the sixth century, when these ex-Roman citizens woke up to the arrangements the Eastern Roman Empire had made for them.
From Gregory of Tours we learn that a contingent from his native region took part in the battle of Vouillé, led by the son of St. Sidonius Apollinaris though Gregory doesn’t identify him as such. All he has to say on the matter is contained in one sentence: “A large force of Auvergnats took part in this battle, for they had come under the command of Apollinaris; their leaders, who were of senatorial rank, were killed.”13 It is noticeable that Gregory doesn't actually tell us which side Apollinaris and the Auvergnian senators supported, but there is a consensus view among Late Roman historians: The grandson of Emperor Avitus fought beside King Alaric, against Clovis.
Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009
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1 John Morris, The Age of Arthur, p116
2 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.18, 19
3 Sidonius Apollinaris, Letters, trans. O M Dalton (1915), 2.1 Letter to Ecdicius.
4 Sidonius Apollinaris, Letters, trans. O M Dalton (1915), 7.6 Letter to Bishop Basilius.
5 Cassiodorus, Variae Epistolae, II.27
6 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, V.43
7 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.27
8 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.40
9 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.42
10 Godefroid Kurth, Clovis, The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908
11 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.36
12 Danuta Shanzer (1998) Dating the baptism of Clovis: the bishop of Vienne vs the bishop of Tours, in Early Medieval Europe Volume 7 Issue 1 Page 29-57, March 1998.
13 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.37