The Brittonic Age 410 A.D. -- 593 A.D.

A "best estimate" reconstruction

Last Modified: 12th January 2012.

This page differs from "The Ruin and Conquest of Britain 400 A.D. - 600 A.D. As told by the Primary Sources" in its aim. Rather than being a reconstruction that uses primary sources to the maximum while avoiding contradictions where possible, this is a more serious attempt at reconstructing the history of Britain in the Brittonic Age. This term (borrowed from C. Snyder) can be used to denote the time from the definite end of Roman Britain in 410 to the establishment of Germanic dominance by c.596. I still use mainly primary sources to tell the history in this page, but they are far fewer in number. That is because I have used only those sources which are reliable for the events they relate.

The scarcity of reliable sources for this period and the lack of constraint this consequently places on historical reconstructions is discussed in The Facts: How much do we really know. This page grapples with this lack of knowledge to come up with a "best estimate" reconstruction, where I have tried to be as unbiassed as possible. The end result is a far less colourful history, but one not greatly different in outline from that in the "Ruin and Conquest". It is less colourful both because many colourful sources are unreliable and because I have deliberately shortened quotes from the sources that remain so as to get across the essential facts only.

I have also made a new map for this page, for the time c.530. It is also a more serious reconstruction, in that it is based largely on the archaeological sites: Germanic cemeteries, and British settlements, which help outline a plausible political situation. Again, this differs from the map for 530 in the Maps Illustrating the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, but not by as much as one might have thought.



When Alaric (the leader of the Visigoths) neither gained peace on the terms he proposed nor received any hostages, he again attacked Rome ... and finally captured it. ... Honorius sent letters to the cities of Britain, urging them to fend for themselves.



late 410s








late 430s



Then a plague followed [the death of Rugas, leader of the Huns, in c.435, near Constantinople] which destroyed most of the men who were under him.





... the race of the Angles or Saxons, invited by Vortigern, came to Britain in three warships ...



Gallic Chronicle for c.441 or c.445 Bede


footnote So the miserable remnants sent off a letter again, this time to the Roman commander Agitius, in the following terms: `To Agitius, thrice consul: the groans of the British.' Further on came this complaint: `The barbarians push us back to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians; between these two we are either drowned or slaughtered.' But they got no help in return.



Sacrorum Conciliorum (Mansi, 1759)




Sidonius - To his friend Riothamus (c.468) Sidonius - To his friend Vincentius (c.469) Jordanes - History of the Goths Gregory of Tours
c.502 footnote


From then (c.459) on, victory went now to our countrymen, now to the enemy ...right up until the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last (certainly not the least) defeat of the villains, which has begun the forty-fourth year (as I have learnt), with one month being already passed, and which is also that of my birth.




Adam of Bremen for 531

Procopius Life of Saint Dalmas of Rodez

In the region beyond [north of] the Loire ... some sort of legion (so to speak) of Britons was stationed (534x541).




ASC preface, interpreted by Dumville [8]



ASC for 547 Nennius

AC for 549


Welsh Genealogies


ASC preface, interpreted by Dumville [8]

Beginning of Cynric's reign over the West Saxons.



Nennius ASC for 560


AC for 571

Gildas' Penetentials of the Synod of the Grove of Victory ASC for 571 (perhaps invented later to justify West Saxon territorial claims)


AC for 572

AC for 575




ASC preface, interpreted by Dumville [8]

Beginning of Ceawlin's reign over the West Saxons.


AC for 582


ASC for 568


ASC for 577

ASC for 688

ASC for 584




ASC preface, interpreted by Dumville [8]

Beginning of Ceol's reign over the West Saxons.

ASC for 591




[453] Here I am repeating the appeal to Aetius, this time misplaced according to Gildas' narrative. This year (453) is the last in which Aetius could have been addressed as "thrice consul". It would not be surprising if the Britons had appealed to Aetius more than once during the period when he represented Roman power in Gaul (426-454). My suggestion here is that the letter Gildas quoted was from an appeal in c.453, but he placed at a point in his narrative corresponding to an earlier appeal, in c.427.
Return to 453

[469] It could be argued that stating "by way of the Ocean" would be unnecessary if Riothamus had come from Britain; it would be the only possible way in that case. Therefore, one could argue, Jordanes is telling us that Riothamus came from Brittany to central Gaul by way of the Atlantic and the Loire, rather than overland as one might have expected. This could have been the safest or quickest way to travel, or it may have been in order to campaign first against the Saxons who infested the Loire at this time. Moreover, there is a Prince of Domnonee (part of Brittany) called Riatham or Riotham who is recorded in the Breton genealogies, and whose floruit might have been around this time. However, the reading that Riothamus was a king who sailed from Britain to the Loire (at some time in the 460s) is at least equally plausible.
Return to 469

[502] Gildas' writing here is notoriously obscure. Elsewhere (see 539) he implies that those who witnessed the Saxon revolt (SR) and Ambrosius' victory (AV) had died, and that an ignorant (and immoral) age succeeded them that had "experienced only the calm of the present" following the battle of Badon (BB). He also implies that the morals of his countrymen began to deteriorate more than 10 years before the time of Gildas' writing (GW). I think the most natural reading of this is that a generation born after BB, or not long (say at most 3 years) before BB, held most positions of power (and so were probably at least 30 years old, say) by 10 years before GW. This reading implies that BB was probably at least 37 (30+10-3) years before GW. Moreover, the last of the witnesses of the SR must have died (aged at least 70, say) more than 10 years before GW. Assuming someone only has to be 6 years old to be a witness to an event like the SR, this means that SR was probably at least 74 (70-6+10) years before GW. Given that the most natural reading of Gildas' text is that AV was not many years (say at most 7 years) after SR, this suggests that AV was probably at least 67 (74-7) years before GW.
Now Gildas seems to be saying that BB was in the 44th year after AV. (The translation I give above relies heavily on ones by Keith J. Fitzpatrick-Matthews and Kevin Bowman here. The other commonly stated interpretation, that GW was in the 44th year after BB, is not tenable unless the available latin texts are all corrupt, and the evidence of Bede's reading of Gildas in c.730 does not support this.) Thus AV would be at least 80 (43+37) years before GW. This is consistent with the above figure of at least 67 years, but rather greater than it, so taking the period to be about 80 years seems the best option. Gildas gives one further piece of information about the time between AV and GW, in that he contrasts the qualities of Ambrosius' descendants at the time of his writing with their "grandfather's excellence". If AV was 80 or so years before GW (as the "after AV" interpretation says), then one might expect Gildas to be castigating Ambrosius' great- grandchildren, rather than his grandchildren. However, the adjective Gildas uses (avita) could well be translated more broadly as "ancestor's" which would allow for an extra generation. Moreover, the fact that Ambrosius' parents died by violence not long before AV suggests that Ambrosius was a relatively young commander at that time, so his grandchildren could well have been still in powerful positions 80 years later.
To summarize, Ambrosius' parents die prematurely in the SR. My best guess from Gildas' text is that AV is about 6 years after the SR. Then, almost certainly under a different commander, the Britons win the BB, some 43 years after AV. Finally, we have GW about 37 years after BB.
For the absolute placing of the four events, my best estimate comes from the placement of the SR. From my suggestion above regarding the appeal to Aetius, it must have been 446 at the earliest and 453 at the latest. But it cannot have been much earlier that the latter date (453) if it was "a long time" after the major Saxon advent in c.443. Thus I have adopted 453 for the SR. This gives GW in c.539 (which fits with the death of Mailcun in the Annales Cambriae around 449), while putting Gildas' birth and the year of BB in c.502 (which fits well with the dating of Gildas' death by the Annales Cambriae in c.572).
Return to 502

[550] This is possibly "the Arthur", or, more likely, named after "the Arthur" who presumably lived not long before, perhaps at the time of Badon, c.502. That "the Arthur" did exist is suggested by up to five other (somewhat later) instances of the use of the name in the period 550-650. The name thereafter fell into disuse for many centuries. All of these Arthurs are found at the interface of British and Irish cultures. One possible explanation is that "the Arthur" was a leader of Irish mercenaries fighting for the Britons against the Saxons. See Ken Dark, Reading Medieval Studies XXVI, 77-95 (2000). In this context, the hill fort Dinas Powys (perhaps meaning "fort of the pagans") in Glevissig is intriguing, as its unique archaeological remains are perhaps best interpreted as elite Irish warriors (who may well have been pagan in the late 5th century) working for a Brittonic state [2].
Return to 550

Map of Gildasian Britain

Discussion of the Map.

Like the maps illustrating the ruin and conquest of Britain, this map descends into speculation in showing precise political boundaries in Britain at the time of Gildas. However, in many of these I have been guided by the work of the respected archaeologist and historian Ken Dark [1,2]. I have also been guided by the distribution of archaeological sites (as shown on the second map below). The result has a few surprises. First, the amount of the Island still under the control of British civitates, centred upon Roman towns, is quite large. In Roman Britain there were probably 17 civitates, forming the "local government" of Britain, as well as a number of tribal or military areas. Of the 17 capitals, 10 were still in British hands until the 2nd half of the 6th century, and 5 were probably still the centres of government of British states. Second, the "Saxon" cultural zone is much larger (at the expense of both the Angles and Jutes) than recorded history (e.g. the Anglo-Saxon chronicle) would suggest. Third, the traditional (according to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle) "West Saxon" heartland north and east of the Isle of White would appear to have been a Jutish area. But then this agrees with what Bede tells us (see 445 above).

The names given to the Brittonic states are those of the corresponding Roman civitates when these are attested by post-Roman inscription, or by Gildas. When Roman names are not so attested, a Brittonic name is used. Some of these (Reged, Gwent, Glevissig) are well-attested in the early Middle Ages, while others (Calchvynydd, Barroc, Ebrauc) are only attested in later documents [3,4]. Reged may be the name by which the civitas of the Carvetii was known. Gwent means the territory of Venta (that is, Venta Silurum, now Caerwent), and seems to have covered the eastern half of the civitas of the Silures. The western half of this came to be known as Glevissig [6], or Glywysing, later Morgannwg, and later still Glamorgan. Calchvynydd, Baroc and Ebrauc may be the successor states to the civitates of the Catuvellauni, Atrebates, and Brigantes respectively. The only Germanic states whose existence prior to the mid 6th century rests upon good evidence are Deira, Sussex, and Kent. These belong to three different Germanic cultural zones, as suggested by the archaeological evidence below. The first is characterized by mainly cremation cemeteries, with some inhumation cemeteries. The second is characterized by a combination of inhumation cemeteries and mixed cemeteries. The third is characterized by an overwhelming preponderance of inhumation cemeteries. On the evidence of Bede (see 445), these can be identified with zones of Anglian, Saxon, and Jutish settlement respectively.

The archaeological evidence (see below) also suggest three major Brittonic cultural zones. The first is the zone in which the evidence of urban and villa occupation is plentiful. Here "plentiful" means relative to the other areas at the time; the evidence is sparse compared to that in the Roman period, and presumably the level of occupation was similarly reduced. Nevertheless it is plausible [2] that civilian government -- from St. Albans (Verulamium of the Catuvellauni), Silchester (Calleva of the Atebates), Cirencester (Corinium of the Dobunni), Caerwent (Venta of the Silures), and Wroxeter (Viroconium of the Cornovii) -- continued into Gildas' time. Moreover, these areas may have maintained some sort of united government, as in the time of Vortigern (See 440 above), and appointed governors for the rest (or at least the west) of Britain, as Gildas may imply (see 530 above). The second zone is that south of Hadrian's wall. This area is characterized by some evidence of urban survival, and considerable evidence for occupation of Roman forts along Hadrian's wall. On this basis, I have called this an area of military government, but we really have little idea how this area was organized. The third and final zone is the west (and far north) where there is little evidence of the survival of urban, villa or Roman miltary culture, but plentiful evidence for re-occupation of Iron age forts on hills, promontories and the like. Many of these sites show evidence of a wealthy elite, with imported wine and glassware from the Mediterranean. This, Dark [2] suggests, was a zone of government by kings. I have also included the area north of the Trent in this zone, although there is precious little Brittonic evidence of any kind here.

If this interpretation of the archaeological evidence is correct then we should look for Gildas' five named tyrants among the kingdoms of the west. The kingdoms of two (Constantinus and Vortiporius) are explicitly identified: Dumnonia and Demetia. Maglocunus is well known in Mediaeval Welsh literature as a king of Gwynedd. At the time of Gildas the tribal name Ordovices was probably still in use; the name survived as the Cantref Orddwy in southern Gwynedd. Another tribal region which was eventually taken over by Gwynedd was that of the Deceangli, whose name survived as Cantref Tegeingl in Eastern Gwynedd. This is probably where Cuneglasus ruled, as Gildas' describes him as driver of the chariot of the Bear's Stronghold. This translates into welsh as Din Eirth, which is the name of a hill fort in what may well have been Deceangli territory. This leaves Aurelius Caninus. The kingdom of Durotrigia is probably ruled out, as Higham [5] has convincingly argued that this is where Gildas himself lived, and he is unlikely to have got away with this sort of description of his worldly lord. Gildas' order of naming of the kings suggests somewhere in southern or central Wales. According to Dark [1,2], Powys, the kingdom which in Mediaeval times covered central Wales, was the successor to the civitas of the Cornovii, and was thus part of the civilian zone in Gildas' time. Brycheiniog (north of Glevissig) may well still have been part of the kingdom of Demetia at this time, as they both share an abundance of Ogham (Irish) enscriptions. The only kingdom left is that of Glevissig. Thus we can locate Gildas tyrants in the five westernmost kingdoms, as suggested by Dark [2].

Archaeological Map

The above map was scanned from the 2000 book by Dark [2], which shows 5th and 6th century Germanic cemeteries in Britain. Of these I have erased those cemeteries which came into use only in the later 6th century, according to the maps of Morris [3]. Then I have added Roman towns, villas, and forts for which there is archaeological or literary material indicating probable occupation after 490. The data for these sites are taken from the detailed descriptions in the 1998 book by Snyder [6], occasionally supplemented by Dark [2]. An example of such archaeological evidence is the presence of coins of Emperor Anastasius (491-518), or datable Mediterranean pottery. An example of reliable literary evidence for occupation is that for Luguvalium (Carlisle), which still had a functioning Roman aqueduct and fountain in the late 7th century [7]. These Germanic and Brittonic sites thus should give a picture of Gildas' partitioned Britain (c. 530). As the map shows, Brittonic and Germanic sites do fall into reasonably distinct zones. There are a handful of small Germanic cemeteries in what I have judged to be Brittonic zones, and one Roman town, Lincoln (Lindum colonia), with evidence for continued occupation in what appears to be an Anglian zone.

References for maps and text

[1] Ken Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity, 300-800. (Leic. U. P., Leicester, 1993)
[2] Ken Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire. (Tempus, Gloucestershire, 2000).
[3] John Morris, The Age of Arthur (Scribner's, New York, 1973).
[4] John T. Koch and John Carey (eds.) The Celtic Heroic Age 2nd Ed. (Celtic Studies Publications, Massachusetts, 1994).
[5] Nicholas Higham, Britain, Rome, and the Anglo-Saxons (Seaby, London, 1992).
[6] Christopher Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400-600. (Penn. State U.P., Pennsylvania, 1998).
[7] Vita Sancti Cuthberti (Lindisfarne, c.700), quoted in [6].
[8] D. Dumville, "The West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List and the Chronology of Early Wessex", Peritia 4 (1985), pp.21-66

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