The Facts:

How much do we really know?

Last Modified: 21st August 2011

The reconstruction I have offered in The Ruin and Conquest of Britain as told by the Primary Sources is an attempt to reconcile the accounts of all of the primary (and some of the secondary) sources. But, as noted there, these sources are of varying reliability. Because of the nature of the times, only contemporary or near-contemporary sources can be regarded as reliable. This reduces the available sources considerably. Specifically, the core texts for the period from the end of the Roman period (410) into the mid 6th century now become:

Of these, only the first three actually report any events in Britain. Unfortunately, the source upon which we have to rely most heavily is Gildas. It is unfortunate because he was not writing history, but rather a polemic against the morals of his countrymen. There are no absolute dates in his text, and periods of time are generally marked in vague terms. The one instance of a specific time period is embedded in prose so convoluted that its meaning is not clear. It is not even certain whether it is legitimate to treat his text as a narrative at all, but, as Dumville has opined, we seem to have no other option if we wish to use it constructively. Bearing this in mind, we can give the following outline, which indicates the (sometimes very broad) periods in which events must have occurred.

408 x 410

425 x 454 429 410 x 460 435 x 447
St. Germanus perhaps visits Britain a second time. No war or devastation is reported.
440 x 445 420 x 500 425 x 505 469 c.480 430 x 510 432 x 512 452 x 547 530 x 548 495 x 575 572-9 580s This chronology shows the extreme uncertainty of reconstructing events in Britain in the period 410 to 575. Vortigern's rise to power, the appeal to Aetius, the advent of the Saxons, their revolt, defeat by Ambrosius and defeat at Badon could all (in different schemes) be assigned dates in the 450s. Of course in any given reconstruction, these events would be widely separated in time. The greatest uncertainty occurs for the battle of Badon, which can barely be pinned down within a century.

To illustrate how unconstrained the above chronology is, I have given below some fragments from alternate schemes which manufacture the history in greater detail. They all hinge on (and hence are identified by) the position of Riothamus' doings in Gaul in relation to the Saxon revolt, Ambrosius' victory, and the battle of Badon. Number 5 is closest to the chronology proposed by Dumville, although he has the Saxon advent even later (480x490).

1. Riothamus = "Arthur" (successor to Ambrosius)

410        Picts and Scots defeated
410s      Age of abundance
425        Vortigern comes to power
428        Saxons under Hengest are invited (Saxon advent)
430s      Saxons reinforced
445        Saxons revolt
446        Appeal to Aetius for aid against Saxons
450        Ambrosius' victory over Saxons
467        British victory at Badon
469        Riothamus (victor at Badon) leads fatal expedition to Gaul
510        Gildas writes his letter.

2. Riothamus = Ambrosius

427        Appeal to Aetius for aid against Picts and Scots 
429        Picts and Scots defeated (? by St. Germanus)
430s      Age of abundance
445        Saxon advent
460        Saxon revolt
465        Ambrosius' victory over Saxons
469        Riothamus = Ambrosius leads fatal expedition to Gaul

3. Riothamus = "John Reith" (Breton Prince)

450        Saxon advent
463        Saxon revolt
465        British nobles abandon Britain, taking the vanquished army to Brittany
469        Riothamus (Breton leader) is defeated by Visigoths
470        Ambrosius' victory over Saxons

4. Riothamus = "Vortimer" (successor to Vortigern)

457        Saxon advent
469        Riothamus (successor to Vortigern) leads fatal expedition to Gaul
471        Saxon revolt
475        Ambrosius' victory over Saxons

5. Riothamus = predecessor to Vortigern

446        Appeal to Aetius for aid against Picts and Scots
450        Victory over Picts and Scots
450-70   Age of abundance
469        Riothamus, high-king of the Britons, leads fatal expedition to Gaul
470        Vortigern comes to power
471        Saxon advent
477        Saxons revolt
480        Ambrosius' victory over Saxons
501        British victory at Badon
544        Gildas writes his letter.

Some would exclude many of these scenarios on the basis of the archaeological evidence. In particular, John Morris claimed that substantial Saxon settlement must have begun before c.430, and that the battle of Badon must have been towards the end of the 5th century. Most would now see this as misplaced confidence in the dating of Saxon cemeteries, and perhaps even misinterpretation of the data (as far as the abandonment of midland settlement in the early 6th century is concerned). Despite these misgivings, one must conclude that any scenario (as for example, that by Dumville) which has the first settlement of Saxons in Britain in the second half of the 5th century would want to have a great deal going for it from the textual evidence in order to be accepted in the face of the archaeological record. This still leaves a great deal of leeway to historians, and story-tellers. In particular the story told by the later sources (as reconstructed by me) fits relatively easily within the constraints applied by what we know to be genuine history.

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