The Ruin and Conquest of Britain 400 A.D. -- 600 A.D.

As told by the Early Sources

Last Modified: 27th August 2015.

Preface

This page is the first, and largest, part of my "Ruin and Conquest of Britain" site. It is an attempt to tell the history of 5th and 6th century Britain (south of Hadrian's wall) using only the early (almost all pre-Norman) sources. That is to say, I have attempted to arrange excerpts from various sources (more than 40 in number) in a rough chronological order. The result is a surprisingly coherent story. In doing this I have almost always maintained the implied ordering of events in the original sources (something which is often not respected) and almost always the original dates (if they are given). However, I have sometimes omitted material which is in contradiction with material from other sources. Dealing with such contradictions is of course a matter for judgement, and is one reason for the diversity of views on the outline of British history in this period. In some important cases I have discussed my reasoning in footnotes.

Some of the sources I use are available elsewhere on the web. However many are not, and in any case they have not, to my knowledge, been arranged in this way so as to tell a story. Of course the material in the sources is of variable quality. That of Gildas, mentioned above, is presumably quite reliable for his time, but becomes less reliable for events occurring before his birth. Other authors wrote many centuries after the events they describe. Such sources are much less reliable. The most famously unreliable "history" of this time is the 12th century "History of the Kings of Britain" by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which made Arthur and Merlin into famous figures. I have not used it at all, nor later works which obviously rely upon it. Where I have included very dubious elements (e.g. from the Mabinogion), this is only to give a tradition which grew from an event which is otherwise recorded in more reliable histories, and which may conceivably have some basis in fact.

To supplement the excerpts from the sources I have occasionally inserted brief comments, clarifications or corrections which are implied or suggested by the same or other sources but which are not worth quoting in themselves. Such additions are indicated in small type. Where the extra information is uncertain, this has been indicated in an obvious manner. As well as these additions, I have added a large number of footnotes. As mentioned above, these contains some of the reasoning behind my reconstruction, and also links together passages in different places to help the reader keep track of people and lineages. It is also worth noting that I have used British (Welsh) and English sources with equal weight, giving, I think, a more balanced portrait than is sometimes found. Finally, I have covered some events in 5th and 6th century Gaul in greater detail than might be expected. This is because they either have direct relevance to the history of Britain, or act as models for the military and social conditions there.

In short, I have taken considerable care in compiling this pseudo-narrative. But is it history or story? I would say that it is history, but history of the old-fashioned "synthesizing and reconciling" kind as practised by the less inventive of the Anglo-Norman historiographers of the 12th and 13th centuries. To quote Nick Higham (King Arthur: Myth Making and History, Routledge, 2002) on the short-comings of this methodology:

This practice involved (and still involves) different texts being ransacked for individual facts and dates, all of which could then be combined in a new narrative without explicit notice of the ultimate purposes of these snippets of information within the narratives from which they derived.

The reader should thus take my chronology with a large grain of salt. It is certainly a possible history, but equally certainly not the history of 5th and 6th century Britain. The latter, a trustworthy and detailed chronology of these two centuries, is impossible to construct from the available sources. I discuss the severe limits of our knowledge on another page in this site, The Facts: how much do we really know. I also give a more trustworthy, and less detailed, chronology based on the most reliable primary sources in my "Best estimate" reconstruction.

To supplement the narrative history told below, I have also produced the following resources:

Prologue

In 400 A.D. the Diocese of Britain (the part of the Island south of Hadrian's wall) had been part of the Roman Empire for over three centuries, and all free-born Britons had been Roman citizens for almost two centuries (since 212). Christianity was well established and the cities remained populated, if somewhat less prosperous than in the past. In the preceding half century there had been a number of worrying raids by barbarians: the Picts from north of the Antonine wall, the Scots from Ireland and the Saxons (a generic term used in the Roman world for Angles, Jutes and Frisians as well as Saxons) from Germany and Denmark. The Roman general Magnus Maximus had largely countered the Pictish threat by enlisting the British tribes between the Hadrianic and Antonine walls as federate allies of the Empire. However, he subsequently withdrew many of the Roman troops in his failed bid to usurp the Imperium from 383 to 388. Around 398 the Empire was forced to despatch an expedition to restore order and peace to the diocese, lead by the general Stilicho. Part of his rescue may have included arranging the migration of one of the British tribes north of Hadrian's wall to Wales, to expel the Scots who had captured large parts of Western Britain at that time.
c.401

Claudian

Nennius Welsh Genealogies
c.402

Claudian


c.405

Patrick


406 Zosimus Olympiodorus
407

Procopius

Zosimus
408

Zosimus


409

Zosimus


410

Prosper of Aquitaine for 410

Chronicles of Anjou

Around about the time Alaric, king of the Goths, took Rome ... Ivomadus, a young man from Britain with 1000 men (possibly part of Constantine's army) ... obtained Blois [Emap (16)] ... by deceipt.

Gildas Zosimus Bern Codex

In the year 409 (actually 410), Rome was taken by the Goths, and from that time Roman rule came to an end in Britain, except for some, who were born there, and who reigned for a short time.

411

Procopius

Zosimus Fastidius -- letter to a widow in Britain
418

Rutilius Namatianus

Exuperantius now (c. 418) teaches the inhabitants of the Armorican coastal regions to love the restoration of peace; he re-establishes laws, restores freedom, and prevents the masters from being slaves to their own servants.

418- c.425

ASC for 418

Gildas
425
c.427

Gildas


c.429

Gildas

Prosper of Aquitaine for 429 Constantius
430s

Gildas


c.432

Irish Annals for 432


c.434

Irish Annals for 434


?440-

Nennius

Gildas
?443

ASC for 443

Gallic Chronicle for c.441 or c.445 AC preface Bede Anglian Genealogies
Nennius
c.445

Constantius


446 Constantius
c.446 Gildas
c.449

Gildas

Bede Nennius
c.450

ASC for 449

Nennius Gildas Geographer of Ravenna
?452

Gildas

Nennius.
?453

Nennius

The Triads AC preface
?454

Nennius

ASC for 449
454
?455

Muirchu

Patrick's letter to Coroticus
?456

William of Malmesbury

Nennius
Vortigern's son Vortimer fought vigorously against Hengest and Horsa and their people. ... Vortimer fought four keen battles against them. The first battle was on the river Darenth (the Derwent in Kent).
ASC for 456 or 457
457
?458

Nennius

ASC for 455 Bede
c.461

Irish Annals for 461


?461

Nennius

ASC for 461 or 465
?462-5

Nennius

Gloss on Nennius (c.1200)

And for five years (?466-470?) they dared not enter the island until the death of Vortimer.

464
467
c.468

Jordanes

Sidonius -- To his friend Riothamus (c.468)
c.469

Sidonius -- To his friend Vincentius (c.469)


c.470

Jordanes -- History of the Goths

Gregory of Tours Nennius Henry of Huntingdon
c.471

Nennius

Irish Annals for 471
c.471

Sidonius -- To his dear Ecdicius (c.474)


c.472

Jordanes


c.472

Nennius


c.473

ASC for 473

Gildas
c.474

Gildas

Sidonius -- To his friend Namatius (c.480) Sidonius -- To Lampridius William of Leon Nennius Welsh Genealogies (amalgamated) for Powys Nennius' Genealogy of Builth, and Welsh Genealogies (amalgamated)
c.475---c.518

Gildas

Bede -- Chronica Majora Nennius Bede
476
c.477

ASC for 477


?480

William of Malmesbury

Felix ASC
c.485

ASC for 485


c.486

Gregory of Tours


c.488

ASC for 488

Bede
c.491

ASC for 491


c.491

Chronicle of Anjou

In the tenth year of Clovis' reign, Britons from the the fortified town of Blois [Emap (16)] had overun the banks of the Loire between Tours and Orleans, and, hiding in the forests, were killing the travellers. Clovis descended there with haste, killing the Britons or putting them to flight, and destroying Blois.


c.495

ASC for 495


?495-

Nennius

William of Malmesbury
c.498

Irish Annals


c.501

ASC for 501


?500s

Nennius

The sixth battle of Arthur's was on the river called Bassas (unlocatable). The seventh battle was in the Caledonian forest (north of Hadrian's wall) [map (7)], that is the Cat Coit Celidon [Illustration]. The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort (unlocatable), and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his shoulders and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was great slaughter upon them.

c.506

John of Glastonbury


c.508

ASC for 508


510s

Nennius

Welsh Genealogies
511-

Gregory of Tours in c.592

Procopius in c.554
c.518

Nennius

Gloss on Nennius

AC for 518 Gildas Bede Henry of Huntingdon ASC preface
?520s

Leland

Nennius
c.530

ASC for 530


c.531

William of Leon

The pride of the Saxons was checked for a while by through the great Arthur, king of the Britons. They were largely cleared from the island and reduced to subjection.

Adam of Bremen, based on the Annales Fuldenses
Procopius

The island of Britain is (maybe in the 530s) inhabited by three very populous nations, each having one king over it. And the names of these nations are the Angles, the Frisians and the Britons, the last being named from the island itself. And so great appears to be the populations of these nations that every year they emigrate thence in large companies and go to the land of the Franks. And the Franks allow them to settle in the part of their land which appears to be more deserted, and by this means they say that they are winning over the island. Thus it actually happened that not long ago the king of the Franks (Theudoric?), in sending some of his intimates on an embassy to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, sent with them some of the Angles, thus seeking to establish his claim that this island was ruled by him.


c.533-39

William of Leon

... This same Arthur won many victories ... gloriously in Britain and in Gaul.

Life of Saint Dalmas of Rodez (an episode dated 534x540)

While Dalmas was hastening to that most devoted one [King Theudobert of the Franks] with zeal in the region beyond the Loire [Emap (20)], in a place where nearby was stationed some sort of legion of Britons, it is said that he received hospitality for one evening.

Procopius


c.534

ASC for 534

ASC preface
c.539

AC for 539

The Triads The Dream of Rhonanbwy Procopius

Monument in Penmachno, Gwynedd


?545

Gildas


c.547

William of Leon

When ... Arthur was summoned from human activity, the way was open for the Saxons to go again into the island.

Nennius

ASC for 547

Ida began his reign in Bernicia, from whom first arose the royal kindred of Northumbria. Ida reigned twelve years. He built Bamburgh Castle [map (18)], which was surrounded by a hedge and afterwards a wall.

Bern Codex for 547

Ida was the son of Eoppa the son of Eosa. It was Eosa who first came to Britain.


c.549

Procopius:

During these times (542-) there was a pestilence (bubonic plague), by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. ... For it seemed to move by fixed arrangement, and to tarry for a specified time in each country, casting its blight slightingly upon none, but spreading in either direction right out to the ends of the world, as if fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it. For it left neither island nor cave nor mountain ridge which had human inhabitants; and if it had passed by any land, either not affecting the men there or touching them in indifferent fashion, still at a later time it came back. And this disease always took its start from the coast, and from there went up to the interior. ... Such was the course of the pestilence in the Roman empire at large as well as in Constantinople. And it fell also upon the land of the Persians and visited all the other barbarians besides.

AC for 549

A great mortality in which died Maelgwn king of Gwynedd.

c.552

ASC for 552


c.556

ASC for 556


?560

Laws of Hywel

Welsh Genealogies
c.560

ASC for 560

Nennius
c.564

AC for 564


?565

Taliesin --- In Praise of Cynan


?565

ASC for 560 or 565

Roger of Wendover
c.567

AC for 567

Gildas -- Letters
c.568

ASC for 568

Nennius
?570

Welsh Genealogies


c.571

AC for 571

Gildas' Penitentials of the Synod of the Grove of Victory ASC for 571
c. 571

Henry of Huntingdon

Roger of Wendover
c.572

Nennius


c.572

AC for 572


c.575

AC for 575

The Triads
c.577

ASC for 577

ASC for 688 The Ruin
c.578

Henry of Huntingdon

Roger of Wendover
c.579

Taliesin -- The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain

Nennius
?580

Taliesin -- Death song of Owain

Taliesin -- Urien of Yrechwydd (?Lake district)
c.582-

AC for 582

The Triads Welsh Genealogies (amalgamated)
c.584

ASC for 584

Life of Maedoc Bede
c.585

Roger of Wendover


?585

Taliesin -- The battle of Gwen Ystrad


c.586-93

Nennius

Roger de Hoveden The Triads Welsh Genealogies (amalgamated)
c.587

Roger of Wendover


c.588

ASC for 588


c.589

Roger of Wendover


c.589

Irish Annals


c.590

Roger of Wendover


c.591

ASC for 591


?593-

ASC for 593

Nennius Roger of Wendover
c.596

Bede

ASC for 596
c.597

ASC for 597

AC for 597
?597

Bede

AC for 597 Welsh Genealogies
c.598

Irish Annals for 598

The Triads Aneirin -- Y Gododdin (not in order)


Epilogue

For Arthur was long dead, and none who followed him could effectively mobilize the military resources of the British kingdoms against the English. The battle of Catterick was almost the last time the British attempted to overthrow the power of the English in the North. With the annihilation of the mounted host of Gododdin, the English secured control of a continuous block of territory in the east of Britain, from north of Hadrian's wall to the Bristol channel. By 600 A.D. the Roman diocese of Britain was a dim memory, and the future of the Island clearly lay with the realms of the English, which were just beginning the process of conversion into Medieval Christian kingdoms.



Notes

Sons of Cunedda
Armorica
Aëtius
Saxons and Picts


Several Houses


Ambrosius


The power of the Saxons


Thanet


Vitalinus


Fellow-citizens of the holy Romans


Second battle


Four keen battles


Riothamus


Ecdicius


A fire


Cerdic
On his shoulder
Carleon
Aelle, whom all the Saxons acknowledged


Not by brave soldiers


Creoda


Camelot
Each having one king
In Gaul
Return to: 531, 533, 539,

Britain has her governers
Martyrs
Civil war and constant plunder
Empty praises


The privileges of Arvon


Menaces Cornwall
Pagans came
Arthur
Cuthwulf fought with the Britons
David, to ask him to send them Maedoc
All the kingdoms
Coel

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