Arthur’s Empire

It was for naming Arthur an emperor that John Morris was hereticised. Before the publication of The Age of Arthur perfectly reputable academics had no difficulty accepting that the legend derived from an historical reality, a Romano-British general, heir to Gildas' Ambrosius Aurelianus, who continued his hopeless struggle against an inevitable Anglo-Saxon future. Arthur as an historical dead-end did not offend the sensibilities of Dark Age historians. Morris' British Emperor was a different matter.

Rejecting the “rigid complacency of historical determinism” Morris argued that Arthur’s struggle was not hopeless. He might have succeeded, and “permanently upheld in Britain a western state as Roman as the empire of the east, ruled from a London as imperial as Constantinople,”1 and despite his failure his impact on later European history and politics was profound. He even had a noticeable effect on the political vocabulary of the British Isles. This was the only area of Europe, up until Napoleon, where the title emperor was used of rulers who were not emperors of Rome, and this insular use "revived the ghost of an ancient reality, the short-lived empire of Britain, whose last and most famous emperor was Arthur."2

David Dumville, who led the assault on Morris' academic reputation, accused him of presenting a medieval view of the period. His own view is, of course, equally medieval. What Dumville actually meant was that Morris' Emperor Arthur harked back to a view of this period popularised by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century, and derived from that British historical tradition which has always stood in opposition to the Anglo-Roman tradition which lies at the root of his own historical perspective.

Geoffrey's story of Arthur's empire is incredible. But it was meant to be. He presents Arthur as a mighty king of the north, holding empire over all the territories that had been under Viking control prior to the expansion of Latin Christendom, and then some. Opposing him is the Roman Emperor Leo, with the massed forces of the orient and the south - including the Spanish under Ali Fatima. This is a patently Islamic name. The year, as we've established, is 470. This is almost two and a half centuries before the Muslim conquest of Spain, a hundred years before Mohammed was even born. Geoffrey wrote at the time of the crusades. His educated readers would have spotted the anomaly.

So, in the reign of Emperor Leo, the forces of the south and east are defeated by the forces of the northern emperor Arthur, but just as he is about to invade Italy he his obliged to break off his attack in order to deal with Mordred's rebellion. He crosses back over to Britain and receives his fatal wound at the battle of Camlann. Geoffrey tells us the year - 542 AD. The dates don't add up. And we are meant to notice.

Geoffrey is not trying to deceive anyone. He intends his readers to see how his history is constructed, and from what materials. Geoffrey always had sources. For the story of Arthur's Whitsun crown-wearing, the climax of his reign, Geoffrey is drawing on contemporary reality - the Norman kings of England wore their crowns in state at the Christian festivals of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. His separation of men and women at mass and at the feast after, which Geoffrey calls the custom of Troy, intentionally echoes the custom of eastern church, and some among his readers will have visited Byzantium. But there are also literary echoes here. The image of Arthur, dressed in royal robes and wearing the crown of Britain, processing in state from the church of the British martyr St. Aaron, in one of the great metropolitan sees of Britain - doesn't that strike a chord?

Arthur is here at the height of his power, having defeated all the enemies against whom he had waged victorious war since the age of fifteen, when he inherited the throne on the death of his father. This is just the story that Gregory of Tours tells of Clovis. Both kings at the climax of their reigns receive the emissaries of Rome. Clovis receives a letter from the Emperor acknowledging his great victory over the Arian heretics with a signal Roman honour, and is henceforth, Gregory tells us, titled Consul and Augustus. Arthur, in Geoffrey's story, has waged victorious war over Saxon pagans and Rome's response is to denounce his usurpation and demand his submission. The parallels are clearly deliberate; we are meant to compare and contrast.

Arthur responds to Rome's challenge with a speech which summarises Geoffrey's case against the papal claim to hold Britain as a fief. That case rests, not on the unknown British history which Geoffrey claimed as his source, but on the histories known to all educated men of his time. We are not asked to credit what he is saying but to look where he is pointing. Arthur's continental victories over Rome were a necessary part of the legal case Geoffrey constructed for his patron Robert of Gloucester, so Geoffrey directs us to look beyond the insular text of Gildas, Bede and 'Nennius' to the continental history preserved and promoted by his opponents, between the years 470 and 542. He directs us, in particular, to Gregory of Tours.

Arthur's British Empire was subject to exactly the same criticisms in the medieval period as in the modern. William of Newburgh in the twelfth century wondered mockingly how historians could have suppressed by their silence this British monarch whose conquests so far exceeded those of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. In the fourteenth century Ranulf Higden pointed out how odd it was that Arthur should have had so illustrious a career and yet go unmentioned in the chronicles of Rome, France and England, whose writers include so many small details about much less important men. And Geoffrey Ashe in the twentieth remarks, on Morris' mighty shadow "looming large behind every record of his time, yet never clearly seen" that "anyone so mighty ought surely to be recorded somewhere, and "clearly seen" at some point."3 Well indeed, but by whom? In which chronicles of England, Rome and France should we expect to find Arthur? Geoffrey based his legal case on the documents preserved and promoted by his opponents and those texts are still with us. As far as insular text go, as Geoffrey demonstrates, the supposed disproof of Arthur comes down to just one document, Gildas' sermon, which fails to name the victor of Badon. As for Arthur's continental empire, once again there is only one text we have to consider, Gregory's History of the Franks.

If Arthur played any decisive role in Continental history, it would have to have been in the history of northern Gaul, and this is the only surviving contemporary or near-contemporary document which could have recorded that role. Gregory’s history is a rather more substantial work than Gildas’ sermon. Written in the last quarter of the sixth century, it covers the previous six thousand years, in ten volumes, beginning with the creation of the world, reaching Gaul in the second century AD with the Lyons martyrs - still in book 1 - and becoming increasingly detailed the nearer it approaches to Gregory’s own lifetime. Unlike Gildas, Gregory does name names, hundreds of them, and they include his relatives and people he knew personally. As metropolitan bishop of Tours, and scion of a prominent Gallo-Roman dynasty, he was at the heart of the political and military events of his era, and in the latter half of his book he is himself a participant in the events he records. His history is intensely personal, and the detail he includes is at times startling. For example, of the tax collector Parthenius, stoned to death by an angry mob in 548 he writes: "he used to eat aloes to give himself an appetite and to aid his digestion; and he would fart in public without any consideration for those present."4 Unfortunately, for the era of particular interest to us here, he is rather less forthcoming.

Gregory has one thing very much in common with Gildas; both worship the God of Victories. For Gregory, as for Gildas, military success is proof of God's favour, as he states at the beginning of book 3: "Clovis, who believed in the Trinity, crushed the heretics with divine help and enlarged his dominion to include all Gaul; but Alaric, who refused to accept the Trinity, was therefore deprived of his kingship, his subjects and, what is more important, the life hereafter.” Of course this is not unusual in the period; Bede ends his highly respected history with a very similar statement. But the history that actually happened does not always fit this pattern, so what will Bishop Gregory do then?

We have a perfect illustration of Gregory's coping mechanism in his account of Leo's Arian crusade. It is to Gregory that we owe certain details of the Riothamus expedition; the name of the village where so many Britons were killed, the presence of Count Paul, the arrival of Childeric. But if we did not have Jordanes account we could not hope to make any political sense of this incident. Gregory gives us no clue as to what the Britons were doing there. It is Jordanes who informs us that Emperor Anthemius, the western colleague of Emperor Leo, recruited the British under Riothamus. Gregory does not name the leader of the Britons. He does not mention Emperor Anthemius anywhere in his history, or Emperor Leo. In Gregory's account, there is no failed crusade against the Arians. There couldn't be, as victory is proof of God's favour.

In consequence of Leo's failed crusade the Goths were left in possession of most of Gaul. But not in Gregory's account. He tells us that Euric, King of the Goths, cruelly persecuted the Catholics in Gaul, but to do so he "crossed the Spanish frontier". Likewise, Euric "placed duke Victorius in command of seven cities".5 Gregory doesn't name the seven cities or even tell us where they were, but just gives a hint: Victorius tried to add an eight to the tally, namely Clermont. In fact, Victorius was placed in charge of the Auvergne after it was ceded to Euric by Emperor Nepos, to the outrage and disgust of Sidonius Apollinaris. Now Gregory has access to Sidonius' letters. He even cites his letter to Bishop Basilius as evidence for Euric's wicked persecution of the Catholics. Yet he does not admit what Sidonius clearly reveals, the Arian dominion over Gaul in the last quarter of the fifth century. He cannot, for dominion over Gaul is proof of God’s favour, and God cannot have favoured an Arian heretic. Gregory knows the truth, but his history does not admit it.

Gregory finally does admit the Gothic dominion over at least part of Gaul, but only at the point that his hero Clovis is about to end it. This occurs immediately after the story of saintly Quintianus, driven from the bishopric of Rodez by his wicked flock who feared he was about to betray them into the hands of the Franks. According to Gregory, the Catholic Christian king of the Franks suddenly announced to his ministers that he could no longer tolerate the presence of Arians in Gaul, and with God's help he intended to expel them. Battle was joined at Vouillé, near Poitiers, the Goths were defeated and their king slain, and then Clovis' son Theuderic went off to capture Albi, Rodez and Clermont - so clearly these towns were then in the hands of the Goths. Meanwhile Clovis wintered in Bordeaux, took all of Alaric's treasure from Toulouse, which city, we know, was the Goth king’s capital, then went to Angoulême and expelled the Goths from this, another city which until then they had plainly held. This last was a particularly easy victory, according to Gregory: so great was God’s favour towards the Frankish king that the walls fell down when he gazed at them. It was after this that Clovis went to Tours and there received the diploma from Emperor Anastasius which conferred the consulate on him.

Even if we only had Gregory's own account to go on we might well be able to work out that this unremitting catalogue of Frankish triumph could not be the whole story. Clovis dies at the end of book 2. Early in book 3 Theuderic is again in Clermont, ravaging and destroying the entire region, which strongly suggests it was not quite as subdued as the Franks would have liked it to be. This, remember, is Gregory’s own region, but rather than condemning Theuderic’s treatment of his own people he lays the responsibility for the tragedy firmly at the door of a local noble, one Senator Arcadius.6 Arcadius was the grandson of Sidonius Apollinaris, though we don't learn that from Gregory.

A little further on we find Theuderic and his brother Lothar sending their respective sons Theudebert and Gunthar to win back the lands which the Goths have recovered since the death of Clovis. We are not given any details of this Gothic recovery, and what we are told of the Merovingian cousins' campaign is not particularly informative. Theudebert went to Béziers, he captured Dio and sacked it, and the fortress of Cabrières surrendered to his threats. Meanwhile Gunthar advanced as far as Rodez, but then turned back, and Gregory tells us he does not know why.7 We could guess. Rodez was a walled town whose inhabitants preferred Gothic to Frankish rule, as Gregory himself had already informed us. Fortified towns were not easy to take, hence the need for the miracle of Angoulême. Presumably God's favour towards Theudebert was not great enough to collapse the walls of Rodez.

Next we find a fugitive from Merovingian kin-murder fleeing to Arles, which town, though in Gaul, is occupied by the Goths. We are not told how the Goths came to occupy it, only that this had happened recently.8 Clearly there is more to this story than Gregory chooses to tell us, and to find out what we can turn to Procopius, who says that after Alaric’s defeat and death “Theodoric had come with the army of the Goths, the Germans became afraid and broke up the siege (of Carcassone). So they retired from there and took possession of the part of Gaul beyond the Rhone River as far as the ocean. And Theodoric, being unable to drive them out from there, allowed them to hold this territory, but he himself recovered the rest of Gaul.”9

Clovis never did enlarge his dominion to include the whole of Gaul. He never reached the Mediterranean. His southward expansion was checked by Theodoric the Great, the mightiest Germanic ruler of his day and Clovis' own brother-in-law. Ruler of Italy from 493 to 526, Theodoric, at the height of his power, held sway over all the Germanic kingdoms now established in the western empire; in the words of Jordanes: "there was not a tribe in the west that did not serve Theodoric while he lived, either in friendship or by conquest.”10 Friendship was his preferred method: Theodoric sought to hold the Germanic world together through a series of marriage alliances. He himself married Clovis' sister, and married his own sister to the king of the Vandals. He married her child, his niece, to the king of the Thuringians, one daughter to a Burgundian king, and another to Alaric, king of the Visigoths. A third daughter was married to Eutharic, a Gothic noble from Spain who settled with his wife in Italy and there fathered Athalaric, whom Theodoric made his heir, and whom Emperor Justin recognised as such by naming Eutharic his co-consul for the year 519. Theodoric had made himself, in effect though not in name, the Western Roman Emperor. Though he failed to dissuade Clovis from violence, he did put a halt to Frankish expansion, and after the death of Gesalec he ruled the Visigothic territories in Gaul and in Spain as regent for his grandson Amalaric.

This Arian king makes an interesting contrast to Gregory’s axe-wielding Clovis. He came to power in Italy by overthrowing Odovacer at the invitation of Emperor Zeno. But though he gained his position by force he sought to rule by law, providing justice for all, Goth and Roman, rich and poor, granting his subjects security in their property and freedom in their religion. He regarded it has his duty to increase the prosperity and prestige of the ancient heart of the empire, and his intentions are manifest in his surviving letters, addressed to his agents and ministers:

"impress upon all your subordinates that we would rather that our Treasury lost a suit than that it gained one wrongfully, rather that we lost money than the taxpayer was driven to suicide."

"Station persons in the harbours to see that foreign ships do not take away produce to foreign shores until the Public Providers have got all that they require."

"take care to use only those stones which have really fallen from pubic buildings, as we do not wish to appropriate private property, even for the glorification of the City."

These excerpts are from the letters of Cassiodorus, but though his Roman minister must be credited with their language, the rulings, and the sentiment are Theodoric’s. His address to the Roman Senate is a lesson in Christian morality which could have come from the pen of Pelagius: "We hear with sorrow, by the report of the Provincial judges, that you the Fathers of the State, who ought to set an example to your sons, have been so remiss in the payment of taxes that on this first collection nothing, or next to nothing, has been brought in from any Senatorial house. Thus a crushing weight has fallen on the lower orders, who have had to make good your deficiencies and have been distraught by the violence of the tax gatherers." Likewise, Theodoric’s address to his sword-bearer illustrates the moral gap between the royal heretic and his brother-in-law, Gregory’s Catholic champion "Let other kings desire the glory of battles won, of cities taken, of ruins made; our purpose is, God helping us, so to rule that our subjects should grieve that they did not earlier acquire the blessings of our domain."11

Theodoric succeeded in this ambition. Procopius tells us that on his death he was bitterly mourned by his subjects, that the only act of injustice that could be laid at his door was the execution of the philosopher Boethius and his father-in-law Symmachus (late in his reign when he had reason to fear the plotting of Justinian was undermining the loyalty of his Roman subjects): “And although in name Theodoric was a usurper, yet in fact he was as truly an emperor as any who have distinguished themselves in this office from the beginning; and love for him among both Goths and Italians grew to be great.”12

Of course there was a contrary opinion. Pope Gregory the Great relates a story of how a holy hermit in Sicily knew of Theodoric's death in Ravenna on the very day it happened, because he saw the heretic, barefoot and bound between Pope John and Senator Symmachus, hauled up the sides of Etna and hurled by these two into the crater. By the twelfth century, in church legend, it is the devil himself, appearing as a black rider on a black horse, who throws Theodoric into the volcano.13

Gregory of Tours does not entirely exclude Theodoric from his history. He mentions him twice. The first incident is the sad story of his grandson Sigeric, who was strangled whilst still a boy. He was the son of King Sigismund of Burgundy by his first wife, “the daughter of Theodoric, king of Italy.”14 Gregory claims he was murdered on his father's orders at the instigation of his second wife, the boy's jealous stepmother. She persuaded her husband that the lad was plotting to kill his father in order to make himself king of both Burgundy and Italy. Once the deed was done the father grieved bitterly for his child, and for his sin, but the vengeance of the lord still fell on him. Though he had renounced the Arian heresy he was killed by Clovis' son Chlodomer, along with his wife and remaining children.

The second story concerns Theodoric's daughter Amalasuntha, Queen of Italy and illustrates the wickedness of the Arian heretics. Gregory tells us her father died when Amalasuntha was still a little girl and she was raised by her mother Audofleda, Clovis' sister. When she grew up she refused the honourable marriage her mother arranged for her with the son of a king and instead ran off with her lover, a slave named Traguilla.15 Her mother sent solders who killed the lover and brought the girl back by force. She took her revenge by poisoning her mother's communion wine. Gregory comments: "What can these miserable Arian heretics say, when the Devil is present even at their alter? We Catholics, on the contrary, who believe in the Trinity, co-equal and all-powerful, would come to no harm even if we were to drink poison in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, one true Godhead."16 The story is nonsense. The dates are enough to dismiss it. On the death of her father Queen Amalasuntha became regent for her young son Athalaric. By then a widow, she was respectably married to consul Eutharic a good ten years previously. According to Procopius, Amalasuntha "had the strictest regard for every kind of virtue."17

If Gregory of Tours were our only source, all we would know of Theodoric the Great is that he was a king of Italy whose grandson was murdered by his own father, and whose daughter murdered her own mother. And on the last count, at least, we would be wrong.

Gregory repeats unsubstantiated gossip and he omits inconvenient facts. Though he provides later historians with far more material than Gildas, he is hardly the ideal historical source. But for northern Gaul, in the period in question, he is what we have to go on.

There are twelve references to the British on the Continent in Gregory's history, and half of them are accounts of the border war waged between Gregory’s patron, Good King Guntram, and the Breton ruler Waroch for possession of Rennes and Nantes. Not that Gregory describes it in those terms: for him, Guntram, son of Lothar and grandson of Clovis, is the rightful overlord of the Bretons, so this is a wicked act of rebellion. He even gives the Breton rulers a speech admitting this explicitly to Guntram's envoys: "We, too, are well aware that these cities belong to the sons of King Lothar and we know that we should show allegiance to those princes."18 It was, as said, a convention of Roman and Medieval historians to put speeches into the mouths of their characters, but these are meant to complement the action, not flatly contradict it. The sentiments Gregory here ascribes to the Bretons are so opposed to their actions the speech reads like a joke.

Of the six remaining references, five concern sixth-century events of very unequal political significance. Two relate to a Breton ascetic in Tours, who witnessed one of St. Martin's miracles but later turned to drink and died insane. Another concerns the defeat and death in Brittany of a Frankish prince, along with his entire family and his unfortunate Breton ally, in consequence of his wicked revolt against his father King Lothar. Two more give a potted biography of Waroch's father Macliaw.

Gregory does not give dates, but he does provide a chronological fix here. The story of Macliaw, in book 4, opens with the elevation of Baudinus to the bishopric of Tours and closes with his death, which tells us that the following events occurred between 546 and 552 AD. A Breton count named Chanao (Conan) killed three of his brothers and would have killed the fourth, Macliaw (Macliau, Macliavus) had he not been rescued, first by Felix, bishop of Nantes (from 548 to 582 AD), then by Chonomor (Conomorus, also known as Marcus, who appears in Arthurian legend as King Mark, the uncle of Tristan). Macliaw was then tonsured and became bishop of Vannes, but on the death of his brother19 he returned to secular life, and to his wife, and took over his brother's kingdom. For this he was excommunicated by his fellow bishops, according to Gregory, though he does not state at which church council this occurred. He does, however, promise to tell us later how this sinner met a violent end.

The second part of the story is in book 5, its position suggesting a date of around 577 AD. Gregory tells us that Macliaw and another Breton chieftain, Bodic (Budic) swore an oath to each other that whichever outlived the other would take care of the dead man's son. But when Bodic died Macliaw instead took over his kingdom and forced his son Theuderic (Theodoric) into exile. Eventually Theuderic returned, slew Macliaw and his son Jacob, and took back Bodic’s kingdom. Waroch succeeded his father, and proceeded to be a thorn in the side of Good King Guntram.

There is only one earlier mention of the continental British in Gregory’s history, his one line reference in book 2 to the destruction of Riothamus’ forces in Leo’s failed crusade against the Goths. For the whole period of Clovis’ rule there is nothing at all recorded in Gregory’s history apart from this:

... for from the death of King Clovis onwards the Bretons remained under the domination of the Franks and their rulers were called counts and not kings.

This statement is inserted within Gregory’s story of Macliaw, immediately after his account of how Chonomor hid Macliaw in a tomb and told Chanao's assassins he was dead, and Chanao, receiving this report, "took over the entire kingdom". Thus the statement stands outside the chronology of the history and looks like a later interpolation. It could still be from Gregory’s own pen, as it is known he revised his own history. But whoever wrote it, it clearly isn't true. Brittany was not under the dominion of the Franks when Waroch fought Guntram for possession of Rennes and Nantes, nor when Macliavus and Budic, Conan and Conomorus, settled their territorial and succession disputes among themselves without reference to Frankish opinion. Nor when bishop Regalis of Vannes exculpated himself, his clergy and his townsfolk of disloyal conduct towards the Frankish rulers, stating on oath that “we have to do as the Bretons tell us, and this irks us very much.”20

The descendants of Clovis were the rightful overlords of Brittany, according to Gregory of Tours and his Church, and the Frankish kings continued to advance that claim throughout the Middle Ages, but beyond an occasional temporary success they were unable to enforce it. Breton independence was never crushed by force, the two countries were eventually united by marriage. In 1488 the Breton heiress, Duchess Anne, wed Louis XII, but it was not until after her death that the independent Duchy was incorporated into the kingdom of France, in 1532 - more than a thousand years after the death of King Clovis.

As there is no record, in Gregory's history or elsewhere, of any battle fought between the Bretons and the first Christian king of the Franks, one might be tempted to assume that Gregory, or his interpolator, invented Clovis' conquest of Brittany, except that there is contemporary evidence to the contrary. There is the letter from three Gallo-Roman bishops Licinius of Tours, Melanius of Rennes, and Eustochius of Angers, to two Breton priests, Lovocatus and Catihernus, regarding the alien British custom of carrying portable alters around to the huts of their countrymen and allowing females to "hold the chalices" during the celebration of the Eucharist. The two priests are instructed to mend their ways immediately on receiving this letter, otherwise the three bishops will "come to you with the Apostolic rod, if you deny charity, and hand you over to Satan in the death of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved". But who was going to enforce this death sentence? All three of these bishops attended the Council of Orléans in 511, hence the letter is conventionally dated to that year.21This council was called by Clovis. These are Clovis' men. Clearly the power of the first Christian king of the Franks did at that time extend beyond the walled Gallo-Roman towns of Rennes, Nantes and Vannes, all the way out to the huts of the Bretons in the countryside.

So when did Clovis conquer Brittany? It might seem that after Vouillé he was kept rather busy eliminating his Frankish rivals, if Gregory's chronology is to be credited. But historians don't credit it. Would Clovis really have waited twenty years to punish Chararic, who didn't support him against Syagrius, or to eliminate Ragnachar, who did? Certainly Sigibert the Lame and his son Chloderic must have been dealt with after Vouillé, since Chloderic fought with Clovis at that battle. Presumably the old warrior was not an easy victim, hence Clovis’ use of the son to eliminate the father. And it was Clovis’ envoys who murdered Chloderic, so Gregory tells us, which means that these murders in the Frankish heartland do not necessarily require Clovis' presence there.

After Vouillé, according to Gregory, Clovis wintered in Bordeaux. He removed all Alaric's treasure from Toulouse and went to Angoulême where the walls fell down before him. Then he went to Tours where he received the consulship from Emperor Anastasius. This happened during the episcopate of Licinius. In book 10 Gregory gives us a complete list of all the bishops of Tours up to himself, the nineteenth, with a few biographical details. The two bishops who preceded Licinius, Volusanius and Verus, were both exiled by the Goths on suspicion of desiring to subject their territories to the Franks. Which is to say, before the episcopate of Licinius, Tours was held by the Goths. And Licinius’ episcopate is usually held to have begun in 508. Could Clovis have conquered Brittany before taking Tours? It seems unlikely.

The administrative divisions of the Roman church followed those of the state, and Tours was the metropolitan see for Lugdunensis Tertia, which included the whole of what became Brittany. Clovis came here in 508, bringing with him spoils of war as a thank-offering to St. Martin. In the same year, at Christmas, he was baptised into the Catholic Church, according to recent scholarship.22 Three years later he convoked the council of Orléans. Thirty two bishops attended, including Melanius of Rennes, Modestus of Vannes and Litardus of Saint-Pol-de-Léon. None of these Breton sees are represented at any subsequent Gallic council until the middle of the century. It was at the first council of Orléans, in 511, that the decision was taken to bring the Christian British in Gaul into line with normal Roman practice, if necessary by force. In that same year, or the following, Clovis died.

Gregory concludes his second book with an account of Clovis' end. He died in Paris after a reign of thirty years when he was forty five years old, and was buried there in the church of the Holy Apostles which he and his queen Clothild had built. But Gregory does not tell us what Clovis died of. His wording suggests the end of a full life; the Latin is His ita transactis which is variously translated as "After all this" or "At long last", but at forty five he didn't die of old age. Something killed him. Gregory doesn't say what.

To put this silence in context: Clovis was succeeded by his four sons, and Gregory tells us what each of them died of; Chlodomer in battle against the Burgundians, the other three of illness, Childebert after lying bedridden in Paris for some time. Gregory records the cause of death for all of Clovis' grandsons and great-grandsons who ruled over the Franks after them, and of a few who didn't: one died in battle, four died of illness, seven were murdered, there was one assisted suicide and one died of excommunication having married the wrong woman, who also died. That's eighteen descendants of Clovis accounted for. Clovis himself is the first king of the Franks of whom Gregory has any detail to report. He is Gregory's hero. But Gregory does not tell us what he died of, only where, and when. After his death Queen Clothild went to Tours, Gregory says, where, apart from an occasional visit to Paris, she lived out the rest of her days serving as a religious in the church of St. Martin. But we know she didn't. And so does Gregory.

In book 3 we find Queen Clothild living in Paris, where she is raising her orphaned grandchildren, the three young sons of Chlodomer. It is there that the elder two are murdered by their uncles, jealous of the attention she lavishes upon them and fearing the implications for their own positions.23 Nobody raises three children during brief visits. In addition, Fabio Barbieri points out that none of the four churches founded by Clothild is anywhere near Tours: "One does not build four large churches during the intervals of “rare” visits; nor, if one has such a passion for church building, does one omit to build any in one’s supposed place of permanent residence, especially when the memories of one of Gaul’s greatest saints are there to be honoured.  At the same time, Iniuriosus (bishop of Tours from 529 to 546) built one church, rebuilt another, and reorganised worship in the cathedral; would Chlothilde not at least have taken part in these pious activities, if she had been anywhere near Tours?"24 It's a fair question.

Clothild died in Tours, according to Gregory, during the episcopate of Iniuriosus, "full of days and rich in good works". But she was not buried there. The royal corpse was carried back to Paris, "with a great singing of psalms".25She was buried beside her husband King Clovis in the church of St. Peter’s, which she herself had built.

So what do we really learn from the final chapter of Gregory's second book? Clovis died in 511 or 12, we don't know what of, and he was buried in Paris. His newly widowed queen made a trip to Tours, we don't know why, but clearly not for the reasons Gregory gives.

Then in book 4 we are told that after the death of Clovis the Bretons were under the dominion of the Franks. Not after any particular battle: no battles are mentioned. Nor are we given the name of any British leader who fought against Clovis. We get no details at all from Gregory, who prefers not to mention Clovis' defeats.

We learn nothing from any other reputable source. No Roman or German historical work has anything to tell us of how Brittany was won by the Franks before 511 and lost again before 546. There are continental British sources, but these suffer from the same deficiencies as the insular British sources for the sixth century: they are not contemporary, they are contaminated with legend, and they are far from being respectable. For the most part, indeed, they are saints’ Lives. There is one, the Life of St. Goeznovius (the Breton form of Gwyddno), which has a preface claiming that Arthur fought on the continent, as follows:

The usurping king Vortigern, to buttress the defence of the kingdom of Great Britain which he unrighteously held, summoned warlike men from the land of Saxony and made them his allies in the kingdom. Since they were pagans and of devilish character, lusting by their nature to shed human blood, they drew many evils upon the Britons.

Presently their pride was checked for a while through the great Arthur, king of the Britons. They were largely cleared from the island and reduced to subjection. But when this same Arthur, after many victories which he won gloriously in Britain and in Gaul, was summoned at last from human activity, the way was open for the Saxons to go again into the island.


This preface contains a claim that it was written in 1019. If so, we would have independent written testimony to Arthur’s continental wars. But the claim is disputed. The preface may, after all, have been written after, and influenced by, Geoffrey of Monmouth's historical fantasy, with its incredible tale of a vast Arthurian empire - which Geoffrey never intended his readers to credit. Geoffrey does not ask us to believe him. He asks us to look more closely at the history preserved and promoted by his opponents, the enemies of his race. He invites us to observe that the written history of the monk reformers is no sort of evidence against the British Tradition of Mighty Arthur, Hammer of the Saxons. With reference to Arthur's continental wars he directs us in particularly to Gregory of Tours, to the period between 470 and 542, dates which, interestingly, coincide almost exactly with the first and second mentions of the British in Gregory's history. Which is to say, Geoffrey directs readers to observe that between book II.18, the fall of Riothamus, whom Gregory does not name, and book VI.4, the rise of Conan, who appears out of nowhere, Gregory has nothing whatever to say about the Britons on the continent.

Geoffrey invented nothing. When he makes his Arthur cross over into Gaul, his entire contemporary readership would have known where he got this story from. And we know, because the facts are still preserved in the written record. "Go to the realm of Armorica, which is lesser-Britain, and preach about the market place and villages that Arthur the Briton is dead as other men" Alain de Lille warns his readers, "Hardly will you escape unscathed, without being whelmed by the curses or crushed by the stones of your hearers."26 This is the same Arthur who defeated the Saxons at Badon, who could not have died at Camlann, whom the entire population of Brittany insisted had rescued them from foreign oppression.

History is not simply a synthesis of the surviving written evidence. It is also an explanation of how we got to where we are now. Brittany exists. This Celtic realm in Gaul did not survive by default. The Empire granted Clovis title to the whole of Gaul, but at this formative period in the history of Europe, when so many new nations came into being, he failed to make good that claim.

The imperial recovery at the time of Anastasius was only a partial success. Clovis overwhelmed the Gallo-Roman kingdom of Syagrius and drove the Visigoths out of Aquitaine. But his advance south was checked by Theodoric the Great, the Arian king of the Ostrogoths, the uncrowned western emperor. And in the north he was checked by the victor of Badon, the heir of Maximus and Vortigern, defender of the native Pelagian Church, the rex rebellis, the tyrant Arthur, Britain's Heretic Emperor.

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

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Footnotes

1 John Morris, The Age of Arthur, p570

2 John Morris, The Age of Arthur, p330

3 Geoffrey Ashe, The Discovery of King Arthur, p84

4 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, III.37

5 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.25

6 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, III.11-13

7 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, III.21

8 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, III.23

9 Procopius, History of the Wars, V,12.44-5

10 Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, LVIII

11 Cassiodorus, Variae Epistolae, III.23, I.34, II.7, II.24, III.43

12 Procopius, History of the Wars, V,1.29

13 see Black Horse and Haunted Fish: The Many Deaths of Theodoric on Ancient Worlds.

14 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, III.5

15 To fully appreciate the intention behind this slander it is necessary to know that: "A union of a free woman with a male slave was treated as analogous to bestiality from the era of Roman law to that of the barbarian law-codes". Susan Mosher Stuard, Ancillary evidence for the decline of medieval slavery, Past & Present,  Nov, 1995  

16 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, III.31

17 Procopius, History of the Wars, VI, 4.29

18 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, XI.18

19 If Lewis Thorpe is correct, and the Breton ally is Conan, then the year is 560 AD.

20 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, XI.18

21 along with, interestingly, Quintianus of Rodez; see Gallic Councils 511–680 on Gallia et Frankia, An Online Encyclopedia of Late Antique Gaul.

22 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.

23 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, III.18

24 Fabio P Barbieri, History of Britain, 407 - 597, Chapter 8.6

25 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IV.1

26 Alain de Lille, Prophetia Anglicana, see E K Chambers, Arthur of Britain, p110