Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Britannia falls prey to invaders as the Romans abandon her


This edited article about the Romano-British originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 872 published on 30 September 1978.

For four hundred years the province of Britannia had formed part of a huge Roman Empire, but now it was on its own. The 4th and 5th centuries were a turbulent time for the Romans, full of revolutions and barbarian invasions. Would-be Emperors had even set themselves up in distant Britannia, though almost all had then marched off with the province's few precious troops, hoping to seize the imperial city of Rome itself

A letter had just been handed to General Aetius, the military leader of the western half of the Roman Empire. He must have read it with a mocking grin. For years this man had fought hard to save Rome from the barbarians, but he was failing and he knew it. Now, in or around the year AD 446, the leaders of Britannia begged for his help, sending him "the Groans of the Britons", saying "the barbarians drove us into the sea, the sea pushed us to the barbarians; we were either slain or drowned." The Romano-British were in trouble, but Aetius was far too busy to help them.

The Roman Empire did not fall suddenly. Its demise went on for decades. By now things were bad in Britannia. The Picts in Scotland and the Scots in Ireland had always been a menace. But since the late 3rd century a new threat, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from across the North Sea, had ravaged the shores of this prosperous Roman province. These savage peoples were soon to be known as the English.

Instead of staying to defend Britannia, Roman troops in the island, plus many local warriors, marched off to die in the Empire's endless civil wars. The last regular soldiers left in AD 407 and only three years later the Emperor had to tell the Romano-British to look after themselves – Rome could no longer help.

Yet they did leave behind a superb system of defences, nor were the Britons so soft that they could not defend themselves. In the Christian cities were skilled administrators and cavalry commanders, while in the still largely pagan countryside a prosperous farm system based on villas still operated.

In the northern and western hills tough Celtic tribes lived and fought much as they always had done. At a time when Christianity was plagued by many strange religious sects, Britain produced one of its own, called Pelagianism. This encouraged its members to make decisions, accept responsibility and generally have more initiative than other more peaceful or fatalistic Christians.

Some of the raiding English had already settled along the east coast, though they were under Romano-British control and were supposed to fight off any newcomers. For the Britons the greatest menace still came from the north and west, from their ancient foes the Picts and Scots.

Not long after the Romans left, a British leader called Vortigern, or "High King", appeared on the scene. He was an aristocratic Celtic Christian who not only wanted to keep out the invaders but also to ensure that the Romans never came back. In fact he may have invited more English to settle in Kent just to keep an eye on those Romans still across the Channel.

At first, Vortigern was successful and the Britons won a resounding victory over the pagan raiders somewhere in Wales. In fact the bulk of the Christian army had itself only been baptised just before the battle. They had also been taught to shout "Alleluia" in chorus by a visiting Roman ex-general, who was now a bishop. This shattering new war-cry so terrified their foes that they simply ran away.

Then a new and terrible blow fell. Those Saxon-English settled in the south-east of Britain suddenly rebelled in AD 442. The war that followed raged across much of the country and although Vortigern and his more disciplined British cavalry finally defeated the savage English infantry, they were not strong enough to drive them right out of this island.

Much of the land was ruined, trade collapsed, cities starved and villas were abandoned. Then, during peace negotiations, the English trapped and slaughtered most of the leading Britons, a piece of treachery which was later woven into the legends of King Arthur.

From then on the situation grew ever more confused. This was the true Dark Age of British history. It was also the age of that partially mythical, partially real hero known as King Arthur. Historians are uncertain quite what happened during the next century. A certain Ambrosius led the squabbling Romano-British Celts after the death of Vortigern, and after him came the even more shadowy figure of Arthur.

The struggle between Christian Celts and pagan English certainly dragged on and on, while the rest of the western half of the Roman Empire was finally taken over by other barbarian peoples.

In Britain the old Roman villas were sacked or abandoned instead of being seized by new masters. Many of the British fled westwards away from the new English settlers in the lowlands, though most of the Celtic peasants probably remained to serve new lords and learn the English tongue.

Yet even they were not all absorbed and Celtic speaking Britons were, for example, still living in the Fen country as late as AD 700. Towns declined as trade dried up, but today archaeologists are finding that they were not all abandoned as was once thought. Behind their walls they came to terms with the invaders. Many Britons did migrate across the sea to Brittany, but most of these came from the west of Britain where Christian Celts, led perhaps by Arthur, successfully resisted the invading English.

Around the year AD 500, after many hard fought battles, Arthur won a great victory at a place called Badon. We do not know where it was, but we do know that a large force of English were hurled back by a small force of Christian cavalry after the three-day siege of a steep hill.

This lost but long-remembered battlefield saw a turning point in the history of Britain. Elsewhere the old Roman Empire fell, either to the partially Romanised Franks and Goths in France, Spain and Italy, or later to the civilised Arabs in North Africa and the Middle East. Here, old and new joined together to build a new world – the medieval world. Only in Britain – after the battle of Badon – did the old, the Romano-British, save part of their land from the invaders. The east of Britannia was lost to these English newcomers, the most savage and primitive of all the Germanic tribes who conquered the Roman Empire.

There was hardly any mixing of the two peoples, and while the pagan newcomers were left to build the new English nation, the Christian Celts had fifty years of relative peace in the west in which to lay the foundations of the first real civilization to appear in Europe after the fall of Rome.

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