Historia Gentium Britanniae

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  • By Lord Eddie
    As Vortigern, king of the Britons, was sitting upon the bank of the drained pond, the two dragons, one of which was white, the other red, came forth ... and began a terrible fight, and cast forth fire with their breath. But the white dragon had the advantage, and made the other fly to the end of the lake; whereupon he, for grief at his flight, renewed the assault upon his pursuer, and forced him to retire. After this battle of the dragons, the king commanded Ambrose Merlin to tell him what it portended.

    The period which follows the Roman departure from the province of Britain in the year 410 of the common era is arguably one of the most formative in British history. By the time William Duke of Normandy overthrew the Kingdom of England in 1066, the country, once whole, had been split in two: England, which made up by far the largest portion of old Britannia, including the densely populated and fertile lowlands of the southeast; and the western uplands of Wales, divided peoples who referred to themselves as the Cymry, the Compatriots, as opposed to their foreign-speaking neighbours who had just over the last couple of centuries banded together into a threatening semblance of political unity – the nation-state. For the sake of brevity, I shall limit myself in this history to two principal themes: firstly, the evolution of the English and Welsh identities, and secondly, an account of the emergence of the state of England, destined as it was to unite all the peoples of the island. This is a tale of Celts, Romans, Saxons, and a whole host of others – but above all, it is a story of Britons, and a single British nation whose roots reach back into the depths of Prehistory.

    To begin with then, in AD 410 the people of Britain shared a more or less common identity. They were all descended from the indigenous tribes who inhabited the island before the Roman conquest, who all spoke closely related languages and shared similar customs, belonging to a culture that had strong commonalities with the culture of the Celtic peoples of Gaul. Many of them by this time also identified strongly with Rome, and an unknown number spoke Latin. The Roman system however was on the wane. Long gone was the high point of Roman rule in the first and second centuries AD, when the enormous Roman military presence vastly but artificially stimulated Britain's economy and there was optimistic investment in an initial surge of Romanisation. With a reduction in the size of the British garrison, the import-driven economy effectively collapsed, but stabilised in the third century into a sustainable patchwork of small regional rural economies, driven by small market towns and consumption on a large scale of low-value goods. By the late fourth century however, this system too was collapsing. The reasons for this are not fully clear; it may be that barbarian raids from Ireland and across the North Sea were playing a part in creating an atmosphere of insecurity that caused people to fall back on ever smaller more isolated communities. At any rate, by the early fifth century most of the great cities of Britain's traditional southeastern economic heartland were effectively abandoned, and industrial production had stopped. The date of AD 410 is traditionally treated as the end date for the Roman period of Britain, as Emperor Honorius of what was left of the Western Roman Empire withdrew Britain's garrison to defend provinces closer to home.

    This is the scene onto which we come: Britain was now alone. Over the course of a couple of generations the Roman system in the core southeastern zone had utterly collapsed, and with it centralised Roman administration. Romanitas was not yet gone however; in a wry twist of fate, it was the in the practically un-Romanised uplands of Wales, the North and the Southwest, where Roman ways now saw a revival. Latin inscriptions begin to appear in large numbers, telling of citizens with Roman names and titles; some of the major public towns of these regions also saw rebuilding and refurbishment for the rest of the century. There should be no doubt that what we are seeing here in the archaeological record is a crisis of identity: for four hundred years, Romanitas had been the only way of expressing power, order – the Roman system was the only system people knew; and now they clung to it as best they could. It is in this context that we have later tales of war-heroes such as Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and Arthur, uniting the peoples of Britain to repel the foreign invaders – but whether any such events actually occurred is impossible to say.

    In the south and east meanwhile, Romanitas was no longer an option. Romanness for them had been something very concrete and real: it was an entire economy. That economy had now collapsed however, and the Roman identity was basically null and void. Even pottery more or less disappears from the archaeological record – the mighty southeast had turned back to subsistence. It can be said indeed that the people of this area really did not have very much identity at all; they had nothing with which to express their Romanness, and what it meant to be British, to be pre-Roman, was long forgotten. It was into this zone that new peoples began to arrive.

    It must be clear from the start that what we really do not see in the archaeological record at this point is evidence of mass invasion. Late Roman history tells us that Germanic peoples had raided the shores of eastern and southeastern Britain, and indeed at the very start of this period we do find some distinctly Germanic burials grouped together. We know that the late Romans employed Saxons as mercenaries to defend Britain as well. The fact is that our contemporary historical records are so poor, and our later historical records so unashamedly made-up and politicised, and indeed the archaeological record itself is so limited, that really all we have to tell us about the Great Anglo-Saxon Invasion of England is the evidence of cemeteries. What these tell us is that, over the course of the fifth century, numerous individuals did come to Britain from over the sea: from Jutland, from northern Germany, from the Netherlands, even from Norway and Sweden – but what they explicitly are not are centralised groups with clearly defined identities. We do not see, as the later Saxon historians have taught us, and indeed conventional history right up to the present day, Angles settling in the north, Saxons in the south, Jutes in Kent and the Isle of Wight. The picture is at once far more complicated, and potentially far more simple: we find individuals hailing from different Germanic regions settling all the way up and down England, at first by the coast and along navigable rivers, later spreading into the interior.

    Clearly there was some movement of people; and it is likely that groups of these people took power over native communities by force and imposed their own leaders as chiefs. What we do not see are continued massive inequalities between the new settlers and the natives, or indeed any real separation. After each local conquest, where it occurred – as the historians universally maintain, and might quite reasonably be expected to have remembered vaguely accurately – the two groups rapidly mix. We can imagine intermarriages, finding cultural similarities in each other's folk traditions, we find identifiable Saxons attempting to dress like Britons as well as Britons adopting Saxon dress. There was definitely no kind of apartheid, no kind of extermination, indeed no meaningful separation between the two groups for any length of time at all. By the early 500s, Romano-British style burials are all but gone, and all cemeteries are clearly of the Germanic, newcomer-type – but only a distant approximation of what that meant when the newcomers first began to arrive. In short, the adventus of the Saxons was not a large-scale all-out military conquest, followed by a systematic eradication or expulsion of the native Britons: we are looking at small immigrant bands from a warrior-culture, almost certainly mostly raiders but bringing with them in many cases wives, children and slaves, arriving in Britain, setting themselves up locally, and the natives, really have nothing else to do and lacking any real identity of their own, copying them, learning their customs, learning their language; and very quickly the two broad groups had merged, except for outposts in isolated areas such as the Fens, into a single ethnicity.

    By 550 then most of what was to become England, from Hampshire to Durham, was quite decidedly English; meanwhile in Western Britain, the last vestiges of Roman civilisation were finally crumbling. It is in this context that the Welsh monk Gildas wrote our earliest British historical text, “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”, which describes, among other things, the Romano-British hero Ambrosius Aurelianus, who led the peoples of Britain against the Saxons (a word which the British used to refer to all Germanic peoples from over the sea) and defeated them at the Battle of Mount Badon. It seems unlikely from the archaeology however that any great hero ever united either Briton or Saxon at this time – the picture is one of small, relatively isolated, community-sized subsistence economies, who were presumably in contact with one another but not controlled in any real sense by a single coercive power. Ambrosius's war against the Saxons was probably effectively limited to Gloucestershire, if we interpret Mount Badon to be Bath, where he may have fought against a specific Saxon incursion and repelled it. New immigration however seems rather to have slacked off by the year 500.

    There is still no decent history for this period however. Over the course of the sixth century, communities in England began to group together again, and noticeable discrepancies in wealth and status begin to emerge between individuals. These new elites reached out to one another, forming new identities, and by the seventh century we can begin to identify some familiar names: Kent was an administrative unit, an independent regional kingdom, in AD 597 when Britain returns to the history books with the arrival of Saint Augustine from Rome to convert the pagan Saxons. There were also by this time Sussex, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia, Wessex, and Northumbria. Over the course of the seventh century in particular, these new “English” powers began to expand west; Saxon Wessex eventually took over British Dorset, Somerset and later Devon, Englishness in the Midlands reached the borders of modern Wales, and Lancashire and later Cumbria also began to be increasingly more Saxon than British. In Wales, familiar historical names also begin to appear: Gwynedd, Powys, and the plethora of petty kingdoms of Deheubarth.

    The conversion to Englishness was still not complete however. Several of the most important kings of these early English kingdoms in fact had British names: Cerdic, the founder of Wessex, Penda, great ruler of Mercia, Caedwalla, and others. English was English, but not yet exclusive of its largely British roots: the Franks Casket from Northumbria is inscribed in a mixture of English and Latin, Germanic runes and the Roman alphabet, and bears depictions from Roman, Christian and pagan mythology. Contemporary law codes illustrate how kings had different rules for British-speakers, or wealas (Welsh), and for English. Indeed in the Cambridgeshire Fens, there were still people speaking a non-English language after the Norman Conquest; and a dialect of Welsh or Cornish may still have been spoken in parts of Somerset until much later than that.

    The next few centuries are recorded in the history books as fraught with warfare, which may help to explain why the fifth and sixth were re-invented in much the same way later. This period was traditionally known as the heptarchy, referring to the seven kingdoms of England: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Kent, Essex and Sussex. The two kingdoms of Northumbria (Deia and Bernicia) were united by King Aethelfrith in 604, making it the most powerful kingdom in England for a time; East Anglia disputed this however, defeated Aethelfrith and replaced him with a prince from the other Northumbrian kingdom, Edwin. Meanwhile however, Mercia was growing increasingly unified, and when Edwin conquered North Wales, Penda allied with the Welsh and marched against Edwin, defeating him in battle at Hatfield Chase in 633. Northumbria then was split again, and began to turn its attention towards what is now Scotland, conquering old British lands as far north as Edinburgh and west into Cumbria and Lancashire and becoming involved in dynastic affairs with the Irish kingdom of Dal Riata. War with Mercia continued however, culminating in the death of Penda at the Battle of Winwaed at the hands of King Oswiu of Northumbria in 655: Northumbria's position as Britain's dominant power was now secure. However, a major defeat in Scotland in 685 led to a gradual diminishing of Northumbria's power.

    Mercia became England's dominant kingdom in the eighth century, seizing important parts of the Welsh borderlands around the year 700, including the fabled Powysian capital of Pengwern, possibly Wroxeter or Shrewsbury. King Aethelbald would continue this quest for Mercian hegemony: although Wessex and Kent initially resisted him, by 730 he had established his supremacy. A succession war broke out in 757, but it was eventually won by Offa of Offa's Dyke fame, the border he negotiated with the Welsh kingdoms; Offa re-established control over Wessex and also began to invest time and money in encouraging the growth of real towns, a policy being undertaken by now in many parts of England and one which would define the administration of the realm throughout the Middle Ages. Offa was a close ally of Charlemagne – perhaps one the things that saved Britain from being carefully considered for Carolingian conquest like the rest of Europe. The rest of the century was quiet – apart from a small but fateful precedent set by a Norse raid on an island monastery in Northumbria.

    Wessex began to rise to power in England in the early ninth century, with the conquests of Devon, Sussex and Kent under King Egbert, eventually briefly forcing both Mercia and Northumbria into tributary status. The by now traditional internal squabbles of this century were to be interrupted however by devastating raids by large bands of armed marauders from Scandinavia. In the last third of the ninth century these raiders laid waste to large parts of England. Wessex was invaded in 871, when King Alfred paid them off, again in 876, when they were forced to withdraw; in 877 however Vikings seized most of eastern Mercia and, emboldened, seized the royal court at Chippenham where the King was staying over Yuletide festivities. He managed to escape however, taking refuge at Athelney in Somerset, from which position he mounted a stubborn guerrilla resistance.

    In May 878, Alfred rode out to Egbert's Stone, to which place he had summoned to arms the militias of Somerset, Wiltshire and the New Forest. He marched against the Norse and defeated them at the Battle of Ethandune, then pursued the enemy and besieged them at Chippenham where they were starved into submission. In 879, the famous Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum was signed, dividing Mercia, and thus England, between Wessex and the Danelaw. Alfred took Western Mercia, and the Danes received East Anglia and the eastern part. Alfred remains the only King of England to be known by the epithet “the Great”, and his rebuttal of the Danes has been portrayed as a great victory of English civilisation against foreign savagery for centuries – a powerful political and romantic angle which is yet impossible to evade.

    Alfred the Great made several other important administrative contributions to what was to become England over the remainder of his reign, as well as to scholarship, including the commissioning of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an important historical document even if the first two and a half centuries are more than a little inventive and ruthlessly politicised: they aim to thoroughly drive home the idea that all the peoples of England hail from the Saxon adventus. Indeed the idea of a single identity of the nations of England was thoroughly strengthened by the constant exposure over the course of the ninth century to a foreign and savage other, greatly easing the reconquest and unification that was to follow.

    Alfred died from a chronic disease on October the 26th, 899, master of all he surveyed – and he had paved the way for the conquest of the next horizon, too. His son Edward conquered East Anglia and the remainder of the Midlands, and Edward's son Athelstan united England for the first time since Rome with the conquest of Northumbria in 927. Indeed this is the accepted foundation date for the Kingdom of England. The 900s and 1000s saw the growth in importance of the towns founded by Offa and Alfred and his successors, London eventually eclipsing the capital of Winchester in terms of population by around AD 1000 – although even then estimates only place the population of each at around 8000; these were small cities by the standards of a thousand years ago. Literature and architecture flourished, arguably some of the greatest poetic works of the English language being written down in this period.

    England fell apart and was reunited in the tenth century, and taken over albeit rather unintentionally by the Danish prince Cnut in 1016, who later became king of Denmark, Norway and most of Sweden too, thus becoming second in power only to the Holy Roman Emperor. This was a temporary union however, as with the death of Cnut's son Harthacnut England passed back to the line of Cerdic, better known as the House of Wessex, in 1042, with Edward the Confessor. Peace lasted until this king's death in January 1066. His brother in law Harold Godwinsson was immediately crowned King; but William of Normandy opposed him, claiming Edward to have named him as his heir. We all know what happens next: William Duke of Normandy and Harald Hardrada of Norway launched a joint invasion on the island of Britain. King Harold marched north and defeated Norway at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on the 25th of September; whereupon the news reached him of William's landing in Sussex. King Harold force-marched back south, and the two armies met at the Battle of Hastings on the 14th of October. At first it seemed it could have gone either way; but English rashness, Norman knights, and an unlucky arrow in the eye saw Harold killed, and the kingdom pass to William of Normandy who was crowned on Christmas Day.

    Of course, the British story does not end here. The Kingdom of England would last until 1649, resume in 1660, merge with Scotland in 1707 to form Great Britain and recognise Ireland in 1801 to form the modern United Kingdom. There is more to say on the Wars of the Roses in the English identity, and the Welsh struggles with their now finally permanently united large and powerful neighbour, including the conquest of Wales in 1284 and its incorporation into England in 1542, have barely begun. In a way these lie at the very heart of my story, for they are the culmination of the formation of the new identities which have been the central theme of this article; the ethnic question which still today dogs Welsh-English relations. All the same, this is where, by convention, I end.


    At this Merlin began to weep and delivered the words given to him in prophecy. "Woe to the red dragon, for his banishment hasteneth on. His lurking holes shall be seized by the white dragon, which signifies the Saxons whom you invited over; but the red denotes the British nation, which shall be oppressed by the white. Therefore shall its mountains be levelled as the valleys, and the rivers of the valleys shall run with blood."


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