of Arthur's lifetime are the worst recorded in British history, but the political
and military situation in contemporary Gaul, just across the channel, is
laid out in some detail. Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks is our prime
text for the outline history of this period, but he does not stand alone.
There are Roman and Gothic historians whose territories overlap his, and
there are surviving contemporary documents. These expand his narrative, at
times confirming, at times correcting it. For example, the evidence for redating
Clovis baptism to twelve years after Gregory would have it is a surviving
letter to Clovis from Bishop Avitus of Vienne, dated to 508. In Britain,
in contrast, there is no continuous narrative account of this period earlier
than Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain.
The ninth-century Historia Brittonum has a paragraph listing Arthur's victories,
but no more. As for contemporary documents, in the second half of the fifth
century Sidonius Apollinaris wrote a letter to Riothamus when the British
ruler was resident in Gaul, and St. Patrick from Ireland wrote two letters
to British recipients, but these have little to tell us of the political
situation in Britain, and they were written elsewhere. A surviving letter
from Bishop Fastidius, written in Britain around 410, does shed a little
light on the political events of his time, but that's it. Almost nothing
survives, we are plunged into darkness, but when the lights come back on
again, in 540 with Gildas' sermon, what we see is exactly the same two factions
opposing each other in Britain as in Gaul.
By far the majority of Britons are, in Gildas' day, sunk in wickedness and rushing headlong to hell, afflicted by the congenital sin of their race; rebellion against the rightful Roman authorities, also known as heresy. We can name that heresy: The British Church, and its tyrant defenders, were Pelagian. But Gildas never mentions Pelagius or the Pelagians. Instead, he tells us it was the Arian treason which caused the fatal separation of brothers who had lived as one, in consequence of which the island, though still Roman in name, ceased to be so by law and custom and sent a sprig of its own bitter planting, Emperor Maximus, to Gaul.
Gildas' own faction, the loyal Roman imperialists, are at this point very much in the minority. The few who have found the narrow path and left the broad behind, the few, the very few who are not rushing headlong to hell and who support his weakness from total collapse, the very few good shepherds, are now so small a number that the holy mother church, in a sense, does not see them. They risk being swept away in the coming storm, Gildas informs them, because they have not opposed the heretical majority with sufficient zeal. And that is a fate they should, by rights, welcome.
Yes, Gildas does say that. In his address to the Good Priests he brings up the example of Moses, who spoke on the mountain with the Lord and returned to terrify the rebellious people “with a face that was horned, displeasing and dreadful to look at”, so far, so Gildas, but in addition: "Which of them, like that same Moses, when begging for the sins of his people, cried from the bottom of his heart: 'Lord, this people has committed a great sin: but if you forgive them, forgive them; otherwise, blot me out of your book'?”1
In Britain, as in Gaul, we see the same disillusionment among the erstwhile supporters of Rome. Gildas’ faction is reduced to a rump, and he himself admits that even these loyal Romans can expect no mercy from Justinian; If they are not sufficiently useful to him, they too will be swept away: And replaced by what? Gildas doesn't say. However he does leave us with one hint.
In Gildas' address to the Good Priests, among all the biblical examples he lines up in support of separation, exclusion, punishment of rebels, warmongering, provocation, self-martyrdom and the sacrifice of those one holds dear, there is one that stands out like a sore thumb: "Which, like Joseph, plucked the memory of an injury from his heart by the roots?"2
The Joseph referred to is, of course, he of the many coloured coat, the favourite son of Jacob who was sold by his own brothers into slavery in Egypt. The Good Priests, then, those British clerics still adhering to the the Imperial Church, have at some point suffered a comparable betrayal. So who are their brothers, whom they must now forgive? Not the wicked heretics, their fellow Britons, clearly; the whole of this section runs contrary to that idea. No, the brothers referred to must be their fellow Empire loyalists. Into whose foreign hands were they betrayed? No other historian has, to my knowledge, noted this cryptic statement or attempted to interpret it.3 But given the known political situation in the period, there is surely no room for doubt. From the time of the Saxon revolt up until they were freed by the successful British resistance forty three years previously, Gildas’ Good Priests, like the rest of their wretched countrymen, were in the power of the Saxons. Gildas’ history makes the Britons the authors of their own suffering, but his address to the Good Priests hints at a Roman betrayal, still bitterly remembered.
According to Gildas it was the Roman Imperial faction, now reduced to a rump, which initiated the war against the pagan invaders of Britain and brought it to a successful conclusion at Badon, establishing, in the peace that followed, a properly Roman ordering of society. We would, then, have a Roman revival occurring simultaneously on both sides of the channel in the last decades of the fifth century. In Gaul, the pagan Franks destroyed the last remnants of independent native rule, the Gallo-Roman Kingdom of Syagrius. Meanwhile, just across the water, the Romano-Britons reasserted native control, forcing the pagan Saxons, relatives of the Franks, into retreat. Both of these were Roman victories, according to our surviving sixth-century sources. By 507 Clovis had recovered Gaul from the Arians. Emperor Anastasius, in acknowledgement of his achievement, granted him an honorary consulship. The victor of Vouillé publicly celebrated this Roman honour, in St. Martin’s church and in the streets of Tours, with all the appropriate rituals and accoutrements, as Gregory of Tours describes. This was, surely, the pinnacle of the Frank king’s career, the climax of his reign, in the eyes of all Gallo-Roman imperialists. And what of his contemporary, the victor of Badon? Was his great triumph similarly acknowledged by that same Emperor Anastasius? Did he present himself to God and his people in some British basilica, clad in purple tunic and military mantle, crowned with a diadem? Did he ride through the streets of a restored provincial capital, scattering gold and silver coins from his own hand? Gildas doesn’t say so.
The Roman victory of Badon is one more lie in the tissue of lies that comprises the historical introduction to Gildas’ sermon. Britain’s division into two factions, and the original cause of all her problems, he traces back to the Arian treason which sparked the usurpation of Emperor Maximus and so ended Roman rule in Britain. Wrong time, wrong emperor and the wrong heresy: Britain left the Empire three decades later, during the reign of Emperor Constantine III, at the time of the Pelagian controversy. Magnus Maximus, the patron of St. Martin, was rigourously orthodox. It was Valentinian, the boy emperor he forced from office, who was Arian. And Gildas certainly knew this, since he had read Orosius’ history.
But of course, as David Dumville reminds us, Gildas doesn't have to tell us all he knows. He's not writing a history, he's writing a sermon, and the historical introduction is only there to support his case. He is free to leave Constantine III out of his tale entirely if mention of that usurper doesn't suit his purpose. And likewise he is free to leave Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor who was elevated to the purple in Britain, out of his summary of British history if it suits his purpose to do so. And if it suits him to misrepresent the ostentatiously orthodox Maximus as an Arian, well, why not? But then it must be acknowledged that, as every writer, even a dishonest one, has a motive, so Gildas has to have a reason for all these alterations.
So what effect is produced by removing Constantine the Great from British history, pre-dating Britain's Withdrawal from the Empire and inverting the theological position of Magnus Maximus and his ‘legitimate’ opponent? For one, it makes an identification between the Arians and the native British heretics, whose disaffection really did have a part to play in Britain’s exit from the Roman Empire and in so doing it projects the political divisions of sixth-century Europe, with the Romans on one side and the rebellious heretics on the other, back into the fourth century. In addition, it presents us with the concept of a northern emperor and it identifies that concept with heresy. Now why would Gildas do that in 540 AD?
Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009
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1 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 69.5
2 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 69.4
3 However, I have recently (November 2010) received a rejection from the online journal The Heroic Age for a paper on this subject, on the grounds that it containled little that was new, and was for the most part a review of current positions.I'm puzzled. I have published here an updated version of this paper, Joseph and His Brothers: Dating the adventus Saxonum from Gildas 69.4. I would be grateful for any information or elucidation. email author