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Guest Author:
Patrick Constable
Patrick Constable

Patrick Constable is the pen name of Patrick Rogers, a former government analyst. He possesses an MA in European History, with emphasis on Soviet Studies, and is fluent in both Russian and French.  For the last several years he has been investigating the calendrical systems used by the Britons, seeing them as a way forward in the study of 5th Century Britain. He now lives in Cambridgeshire.

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Discordia
Towards a Chronology for 5th century Britain
Patrick Constable


on
Vortigern Studies


Perhaps no event in 5th Century British history is more obscure than the Discordia or “Quarrel” of Guollop. In the case of Badon, Wippedsfleot, or Camlann (apart from the issue of their historicity) we at least have some sense of who was fighting whom, and who may have won. But the report of the encounter at Guollop, or “Wallop” as it is sometimes called, is a citation tacked on to Chapter 66 of the Historia Brittonum. The contesting sides are uncertain, and its outcome even more so. True, it does seem to tell us that the undoubtedly historical Ambrosius led one side and a certain Vitalinus the other. But even here some have suggested that this Ambrosius could not be the Ambrosius Aurelianus mentioned by Gildas, but another person altogether, perhaps the father of this early British hero.[1] Who Vitalinus might be, is a matter for endless debate. Moreover, Guolllop’s apparent date, 437, does not track well with any other event of that time. The whole citation seems to be an afterthought, an orphan passage, of little significance to the study of 5th Century Britain.

The writer hopes to show that this obscurity is only an illusion. Guollop was an important encounter in the history of Britain. It is mentioned not just in the Historia, but in other sources as well. Indeed, this single citation has the potential to change the way we look at 5th Century British history. Paradoxically, this discordia may bring a measure of concordia to the evidence for this period.

It is best to begin with the Historia Brittonum’s chronology, to see the citation in its context. The relevant passages in Chapter 66 read as follows:

“…from Stilicho to Valentinian, son of Placidia, and the reign of Vortigern, are 28 years.

“And from the reign of Vortigern to the quarrel between Vitalinus and Ambrosius are 12 years, that is Wallop, the battle of Wallop. Vortigern however, held empire in Britain in the consulship of Theodosius and Valentinian (A.D. 425), and in the fourth year of his reign the Saxons came to Britain, in the consulship of Felix and Taurus (A.D. 428)….

“From the year when the Saxons came to Britain and were welcomed by Vortigern to Decius and Valerian are 69 years (A.D. 497).”[2]

What is interesting about this chronology is that there are three distinct “classes” of dates being used here. The first is a kind of timeline for the entire century, giving the intervals between important events. It begins with Stilicho’s rise to power, and ends (if we accept the Adventus date of 428) in the year 497. The second consists of two very precise consular dates for Vortigern’s accession and for the Saxon Adventus, respectively. Either of these two systems would give us a good idea of Vortigern’s floruit. Taken together they leave the distinct impression that the author is extremely anxious that we accept the dates that he provides. Moreover, he is probably even more anxious that we not accept the very different consular date given by Bede for the Adventus a century earlier.[3] For the Historia’s author, the Saxons must arrive in 428, not in 450 (the consular date provided by Bede) and he attempts to prove his case with a superfluity of data.

However the third class of dates is different. This consists of two dates “keyed” on the accession of Vortigern. The Adventus, we are told, occurred 4 years after Vortigern became ruler, and the discordia of Guollop was fought 8 years after this. In isolation, these two dates give us no indication of when Vortigern lived. True, the author may well have used the first date to generate the second of his two co-consular dates, but once he establishes the date of the Adventus, he seems to lose interest in this last class of data. If we were to follow the Historia’s dating scheme, this discordia would take place in about 437. But in this case the author does not bother to tell us the co-consuls for that year. His only interest seems to lie in Vortigern’s misdeeds.

Of course, many might object that attaching any importance to the Historia Brittonum’s chronology is a waste of time. Certainly David Dumville’s investigations in the previous century have cast grave doubt on the value of this work. In his view the Historia was really an attempt to denigrate the 9th Welsh dynasty of Powys, and had almost no relevance to 5th Century history. [4] It is certainly true that the Historia was composed with the political situation in 9th Century Wales very much in mind. There seems little doubt that the core of the work is an extended denunciation of Vortigern--and by extension his reputed descendants, the contemporary rulers of Powys. The Historia presents chapter after chapter of Vortigern’s misdeeds, ending with a denunciation by Saint Germanus himself, who, oddly enough, the Powysian dynasts claimed actually blessed Vortigern.[5] Current thinking sees the Historia as little more than a 9th Century fabrication, admittedly containing a few scraps of real information, mostly from Gildas. But its historical value can only be very slight.[6]

One may agree with all of this, save for two caveats. First of all, it is undeniably true that if the writer of the Historia had accepted Bede’s date of 450 for the Adventus, (“the date when Marcian became emperor with Valentinian”) the core of his work would have to be discarded. “Nennius,” like any historian, “footnotes” his main source for his account of Vortigern. He tells us that his information comes from a now lost Life of St. Germanus. This Life, however, bears almost no relation to the 5th Century Life of St. Germanus written by Constantius. Instead, it recounts the many crimes of Vortigern, then his subsequent flight from St. Germanus all over Wales, and finally the “Proud Tyrant’s” death by heavenly fire in his last refuge.[7] If we were to apply the Historia’s four year gap between Vortigern’s accession and the Adventus, Bede’s date would place Vortigern’s coronation in 446 or 447. But it so happens that the good saint died several years before this.[8] Even an unrecorded confrontation between Germanus and Vortigern would thus have been literally impossible after 446. To paraphrase Voltaire, if the Historia’s accession date for Vortigern did not exist, it would have to be invented.

Second, it is important to remember that the 9th Century rivalry between Gwynedd and Powys ended abruptly in 855. In that year, Cyngen, the last ruler of Powys, died in Rome. No dynast after him claimed descent from Vortigern, and thus no Welshman of any stature had a stake in refuting aspersions on the “Proud Tyrant’s” character. On the contrary, Gwynedd—and Gwynedd’s version of history--dominated Wales until 1283.[9] But the Pillar of Eliseg suggests that during Cyngen’s lifetime a sort of historical dialogue was going on between these two states. The monument’s assertion that Saint Germanus blessed Vortigern is in direct contradiction to the Historia’s portrayal of the Saint as hounding the “Proud Tyrant” to his death. Likewise, the mention of Sevira, a “daughter” of Maximus addresses in part the questionable marriage Vortigern makes to Hengist’s daughter.[10] The Pillar’s text is very anxious to show that the Powysian line derives its legitimacy from a number of illustrious ancestors--and from the good offices of an important saint as well.[11] This also suggests that the Historia’s author was not composing his history in a vacuum. Some of his sources may well be fabrications. Germanus’ pursuit and denunciation of Vortigern undoubtedly is. But there also seems to have existed in Wales some sort of historical tradition thought to be valid for the 5th Century. Dynasties might “spin” it to their advantage, but some basic facts were agreed upon. However, with the eclipse of Powys, this was no longer the case. Whatever historic traditions that existed in Powys disappeared with its ruler, and the Historia’s description of events became the only possible view of 5th Century British history. After 855 the dialogue became a monologue.

The writer would thus share in Dumville’s skepticism about the usefulness of the Historia as history. Most or all of the stories about Vortigern are probably fabrications. But it is still at least possible to pose a question: is all of this work mere propaganda, and thus wholly useless? After all, propaganda is not just bad or fabricated history. The best propaganda mixes lies with as much truth as possible. Histories composed during the Soviet and Nazi eras still contain very much valid information about real events. In the case of the Historia, its main source appears to be a kind of “hatchet job” on Vortigern. But other parts of it not devoted to this theme might still conceivably have some historical value, as the passages lifted from Gildas most certainly do. This begs the question: are there any citations in the Historia that do not directly bear on Vortigern’s character, and thus might be of use? One likely candidate is the following citation in Chapter 66: “From the year when the Saxons came to Britain and were welcomed by Vortigern to Decius and Valerian are 69 years.” Dumville’s explanation for this passage is original, to say the least. He informs us that “Valerian” is probably the Valerius who was consul in 521, a perfectly logical assumption, one that the writer whole-heartedly shares. Yet then Dumville asserts that the original meaning of this citation is that there are 89 years between Aetius, the consul for 432, and this Valerius of 521—an assertion which, in order to be true, requires two scribal errors.[12] The writer will concede that anything is possible, particularly in the study of 5th Century British history. But equally, one might simply apply the interval that the Historia provides. If we do the math, something very interesting occurs:

521 - 69 =  452

The year 452 is very near to the Adventus date that Bede gives. Perhaps not coincidentally, the interval from the correct consular date for the Adventus in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to the accession of Cerdic is also precisely 69 years, signaling that both of these citations may be telling us about the chronological relationship between two of the most important events in Saxon history. And this should not surprise us. Very much of the Historia is acknowledged to have come from Saxon sources.[13] But as we have seen, Bede’s consular date in his History made it impossible for the Historia’s author to use the 9th Century Life of St. Germanus--unless Vortigern’s accession date could somehow be placed much earlier in time.[14] The alternative dates that the Historia’s author presents for Vortigern succeed in doing this quite well, “proving” in two different ways that this ruler came to power in about 425, in plenty of time to be around when Saint Germanus arrives. But in the “Valerian” citation the author falls down on the job. He gives a passage that actually strengthens the case for Bede’s date, suggesting that the carefully constructed chronology “proving” that Vortigern came to power in 425 may indeed be a fabrication. The source that the Historia’s author used in the “Valerian” citation apparently accepted Bede’s date, suggesting that 450 may have been a generally acknowledged date for the Adventus prior to the 9th Century.

Another “peripheral” citation that might potentially give us new insights is that of the Battle of Guollop. To recap, the two passages keyed on Vortigern’s accession read as follows:

“And from the reign of Vortigern to the quarrel between Vitalinus and Ambrosius are 12 years, that is Wallop [Guollopum], the battle of Wallop…and in the fourth year of his reign the Saxons came to Britain.”[15]

Now, it is important to note that practically all we think we know about Vortigern comes from the Historia Brittonum. If we did not have the author’s helpful information that this ruler was a coward, a traitor, a pervert, and a would-be murderer, we would have almost no image of him.[16] Bede and Gildas only note his role in the Adventus in passing, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions one occasion where he fought Hengist and Horsa.[17] Otherwise we have nothing. Indeed, in our ignorance we might even surmise that he was a generalissimo in the mold of such Late Roman commanders as Constantius, Aetius or Aegidius, each of whom, strangely enough, used barbarian forces in much the same way as Vortigern.

We have postulated that 450, the consular date for Bede’s Adventus—and the date which the “Valerian” citation seems to best fit—may have been a generally recognized date before the 9th Century. If so, might not the 4-year interval between Vortigern’s accession and the Adventus actually be an earlier, more “authentic” date as well? Remember, it is not keyed on either of the first two classes of dates. Instead it may actually have been used to generate one of these dates, implying that it is of older authority than the other categories. As we have seen the four-year interval would mean that Vortigern came to power, in 446 or 447—just after the most likely date for the famous “Appeal to Etuis” that Gildas references.[18]

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Annales Cambriae begins in approximately this year.[19] Taken together these two pieces of data may be telling us that a new leader took charge of Britain in about 447, one who was deemed so significant that later dates were keyed on his reign—rather like the Historia’s two “Vortigern” dates. This would imply that 4 years later this ruler came to some sort of accommodation with a group of Saxons.[20] The Historia’s author would have us believe this was done because of cowardice. But it seems counterintuitive that Britons facing annihilation in 446 would turn around and raise a weakling to the throne a year later. Moreover a little-noted phrase in Gildas following the Appeal to Aetius suggests the opposite: “…now for the first time they inflicted a massacre upon them [the barbarians]…for a little while their enemies’ audacity ceased…” [21] True, the standard image of the Adventus is of a boatload of treacherous mercenaries invited into Britain by a foolish ruler. But from archaeology we know that Saxons had been part of the British landscape for decades.[22] The Adventus may actually mark the year in which this new ruler was able, through a combination of force and diplomacy, to bring about a detente between Saxon and Briton, perhaps even a quasi-alliance. And the most likely person to have achieved this remarkable reversal of fortune is Vortigern.

But it is this entry about the “Quarrel” of Guollop that is crucial to our understanding of 5th Century Britain. If we add eight years to 450,“the date when Marcian became emperor with Valentinian,” we get a date for this discordia of 458. This may not seem much more illuminating—until we turn our attention to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There we find a curious pattern in the dates, which are purely insular in character. The “Laud Chronicle’s” entry for Maximus’ usurpation is 380, although it should be 383. Later in both the Laud and Parker Chronicles we discover that their dates for the Appeal to Aetius (443) “lag” the most accepted date, 446, by three years. With this in mind, the entry for the year 455 is astonishing:

“In this year Hengest and Horsa fought against king Vortigern at a place which is called Aegelsthrep…” [23]

If we apply the “three year lag” to this citation we obtain a date for Aegelsthrep of 458—the same year as that of Guollop. This strongly suggests that these two passages are actually different accounts of the same battle, a battle in which Vortigern’s battlefield commander was Ambrosius Aurelianus. Moreover, this agreement between the two citations leaves open the possibility that other dates in the ASC may also be valid to within a few years of their occurrence.

Guollop may have something else to tell us. In Chapter 43 of the Historia we read the following:

“At length Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, valiantly fought against Hengist, Horsa, and his people; drove them to the isle of Thanet, and thrice enclosed them within it, and beset them on the western side.”[24]

The next chapter gives a list of four battles in which this Vortimer fought the Saxons. Curiously, though, it only specifies three encounters. One it lists as “on the river Darenth.” The second it describes as taking place “at the ford which is called Episford in their language.” The third is not named, but is listed as “on the shores of the Gallic Sea.”[25] The natural question is: what was the name of this fourth, unnamed battle?

The solution to this may lie in the ASC. Scholars generally acknowledge that the “battle list” of Vortimer is in some way related to the entries for Hengist in the ASC. Of interest, in the year 456 (one year after Aegelsthrep) a battle is said to have occurred at a place called Crecganford, probably Crayford in Kent. This happens to be on the river Darwent. Further, the next battle of Hengist’s is said have taken place in 465 at Wippedsfleot—a close match linguistically for Episford.[26] Finally the ASC mentions a last battle for Hengist in 473, but like the Historia, does not give it a name. These two sources would thus match up as follows:

ASC

455 - Aegelsthrep
456 - Crecganford
465 - Wippedsfleot
473 - No name

Historia


“on the river Darenth”
Episford
“on the shores of the Gallic Sea”

(all dates uncorrected)

Quite obviously the best candidate in the ASC for Vortimer’s “lost” battle is the first encounter mentioned in the ASC, Aegelsthrep, It also happens to be the battle which we have identified as being identical to Guollop. This strongly suggests that Vortimer may be none other than Ambrosius Aurelianus. Further, the Historia’s account of Vortimer driving the Saxons to Thanet, when combined with the bare statement of facts in the ASC for 455 [i.e. 458], implies that Guollop/Aegelsthrep was a British victory—a victory that Ambrosius would have been extremely anxious to have memorialized in the historical record.

There is more to this than just the discovery of the name of a “lost” battle, however. Until now it has been assumed by many observers that the Historia’s account of Vortimer was merely a “borrowing” of Saxon material by the Welsh. The Guollop account tells us something different. It demonstrates the existence in the 9th Century of three different historical traditions, all associated with a series of battles fought between Hengist and Ambrosius. As with the “dialogue” between the Historia and the Pillar of Eliseg, this suggests that a number of polities in 9th Century England and Wales had significantly different—but related—versions of events reputed to have taken place in the 5th Century. The Historia’s account of Vortimer may not be a simple “borrowing” from Anglo-Saxon sources by Welshmen totally bereft of any explanation for their past. The Vortimer account is in fact evidence for a number of competing historical traditions that existed in both Wales and England far earlier than the 9th Century, all ultimately deriving from a single source.

If we consider that these three accounts may be complimentary versions of the same events, we begin to see a very coherent story unfolding before us. For example, the ASC’s full entry for Hengist’s second battle in the year 456 (or, more properly, 459) tells us that Ambrosius’ victory was far from decisive. The Parker Chronicle reports it as follows:

“Hengist and Aesc fought against the Britons at a place which is called Crecganford, and there slew four thousand men. The Britons then forsook the land of Kent, and in great consternation fled to London.”[27]

We could, of course, reject this as a 5th Century Saxon “press release,” but the Historia’s tight-lipped version seems to confirm that this was a Saxon victory: “…the first [battle] was on the river Darent.”[28] Unlike the extravagant claims made in Chapter 43, the Britons can report nothing good arising from Ambrosius’ second battle. Of interest, in the 5th Century Crecganford/Crayford was the venerable Roman town of Noviomagus. It was also the last major settlement on the old Roman Road to London. Taken together, the two entries give a consistent account of a British defeat in which the survivors sought refuge in London.[29]

We might assume from the reports of so many British dead that this was the start of the Saxon Revolt. But if we are to believe the ASC, this seems unlikely. A full decade separates this discordia from Ambrosius’ next battle. Now, it is possible that he fought other battles not reported. But it is also important to note an apparent discrepancy. The Historia seems to tell us that Vortigern was alive during these four battles, while the ASC makes no mention of him after the first battle. But something else that the Historia tells us may resolve this paradox. The latter work excoriates Vortigern for two things. One is for making over all of Kent to the Saxons; the other is for marrying the daughter of Hengist.[30] These could be mere 9th Century calumnies. But equally these would be astute political moves for a ruler who has lost a good part of his British levies and faces rebellious mercenaries at the gates of Britain’s old capital. The cession of Kent to the rebels would only recognize the obvious: that Kent was under Saxon control, and any attempt to retake it might lead to the ethnic conflicts of the past. Further, marrying the daughter of the rebellion’s leader just might cool things down for a while. The term discordia may thus be very apt. The two battles were a quarrel between allies that was patched up through Vortigern’s diplomacy. The “Proud Tyrant” and the Saxons were allies once more. But the absence of any mention of Vortigern in the ASC after 459 may mean that from then on the implacable foe of the Saxons was not the “Proud Tyrant,” but Ambrosius. Peace was obtained, but underlying grievances still existed on both sides.

The ASC’s date for the next battle, 465, is of even more interest. If we follow the three-year “rule” established for earlier dates, this would place the battle of Wippedsfleot/Rhyd yr Afael in about 468. This is near a very significant date. If we are to credit several different Continental sources, this was one year before a British king called Riothamus sailed to Gaul with 12,000 men in 469.[31] It seems difficult to credit that an expedition almost twice the size of William the Conqueror’s would have been launched in the middle of a fratricidal conflict, and the best explanation is that it most certainly was not. An alternative would be to postulate that the date might be off by one more year, due to discrepancies in the competing calendrical systems of the time.[32] In other words, the most likely time for this third battle was after Riothamus’ expedition of 469. Again this strengthens the case that the ASC’s chronology is not random, but tied to specific events in the 5th Century.

But the fact that this invasion took place at all has some unsettling implications for any student of 5th Century Britain. If we are to credit the Historia’s contention that Vortigern was alive during Ambrosius’ battles, then the best candidate for Riothamus is…Vortigern. Only he is mentioned by Gildas as ruling a Britain undivided by the Revolt, and thus best able to launch such a large-scale operation. Only he would have been able to join British military force with Saxon naval expertise. This in turn radically changes our image of him. Vortigern may not have been the coward portrayed in the Historia. He may have been a powerful war leader, willing to challenge the strongest single army in Western Europe—the Visigoths.

It might be objected that Ambrosius could also be Riothamus. But if the Historia is any guide, this is doubtful. That work asserts that Vortigern was still supreme ruler during the life of the man we have postulated to be Ambrosius. Moreover, the younger man had lost his second battle, and lost it in an ignominious way. Finally, given the complete absence of any mention of British naval capability in the 5th Century, the only way a British army could have been transported to Gaul was in Saxon ships. The “Saxon slayer” of Guollop would have been the last person able to put together such an expedition. He may even have been a bitter political enemy of both Vortigern and Hengist by this time. In light of Gildas’ favorable report, Ambrosius is best seen as representing the interests of whatever remained of the old Latin-educated landowning elite.[33]

The first two battles also give us a new insight into Vortigern ‘s motives for launching this expedition—and they went far beyond simple thirst for land and glory. The Saxons had already rebelled and won. British resentment over the defeat and loss of land was probably still very great. Many Britons may even have come to see Ambrosius as a champion against the barbarians, and thus a potential threat to Vortigern himself. Under such circumstances the best way to avert a new civil war was to direct the energies of both factions outward. And the emperor Anthemius’ invitation to invade Gaul provided a perfect opportunity to do this.

There were two drawbacks to this strategy, however. The obvious one is that the venture might fail, which it certainly did. But the other is that, whatever the outcome, this would have been a very expensive operation to carry out. The country would have been drained of all manner of supplies to “pay” for the construction of such a fleet. Moreover, a not inconsiderable part of the harvest would have gone into the holds of these same ships to feed the 12,000 soldiers. This in turn could only have created great resentment in many levels of British society against the “Proud Tyrant” and his barbarian allies. It may even have resulted in food shortages among a large segment of the populace. Further, by the autumn of 469 there was yet another reason for bad blood between Briton and Saxon. We know that following Riothamus’ defeat in Gaul, he himself fled east into Burgundy. But if his ships were crewed by mostly Saxons it is likely that many of the “barbarian” survivors of the expedition did not follow their British ruler eastward. Instead, their most logical course would have been to return their cyuls down the Loire and sail back to Britain.[34] But when these defeated, hungry men arrived they would have found a country where food was scarce, and a British population that either could not or would not provide them with their usual annona. That they had just lost a war in Gaul may also not have counted in their favor. It is in this context that we must view the third battle, called Wippedsfleot by the ASC. If we are to believe the Historia, this thrust Ambrosius Aurelianus back on to the stage once again. The citation in the ASC reads as follows:

“In this year Hengist and Aesc fought against the Welsh near Wippedsfleot, and there slew twelve Welsh nobles; and one of their own thanes, whose name was Wipped, was slain there.”[35]

The Historia’s reticence about details suggests that again this was no victory for Ambrosius. The action, it tells us, took place

“…at the ford, called Episford in their language, Rhyd yr afael in ours, and there fell Horsa, and also Vortigern’s son Cateyrn.” [36]

Indeed, this looks like a defeat even more crushing than Crecganford. And it came at the worst possible time. Much of Vortigern’s army (at least the British half) was stranded in Gaul, while the rest of Britain’s levies lay dead on the field of Wippedsfleot. The diocese would have literally been defenseless. This engagement in which so many noble Britons die looks suspiciously like the onset of the Saxon Revolt. It would have been the best time--indeed the only time--when the Saxons could have engaged in the unopposed rampage that Gildas describes. The good cleric’s portrait of British “cowardice”--so eagerly seized upon by Bede--is in reality a description of unarmed and untrained civilians confronted by hardened military professionals.[37]

But what was the fate of Vortigern/Riothamus himself? We have no report of his death on the Continent, and the Historia suggests that he was alive when Ambrosius was fighting his battles. Admittedly, the logic of the Historia’s case against Vortigern requires that he remain alive for the “Night of the Long Knives” and Saint Germanus’ subsequent pursuit. But equally Vortigern may have imitated any number of later exiled British rulers: he may have made his way back to Britain for another attempt at supreme power. The question then becomes, is there any evidence--or any way of looking at the evidence--that might tell us about his ultimate fate?

There may well be. It is instructive to review the hypothetical portrait that we have built for Vortigern, since it differs quite significantly from the Vortigern we find in the Historia. Specifically, we have argued the following:”

  • Vortigern was a great battle leader;
  • His policies united the peoples of Britain for most of a twenty year reign;
  • He married a “femme fatale” who ultimately undermined his authority;
  • He led a large expedition overseas to Gaul;
  • His reign ended with a devastating battle that plunged Britain into chaos.

This sounds like another 5th Century personality whom we all know quite well. In a word, Arthur may be the literary guise of a real British ruler who was known variously as Riothamus and Vortigern.[38] This may seem far-fetched. But it is important to note that these three names are found in places and times quite distinct from each other: in 8th Century Northern Britain, in 5th Century Gaul, and in 6th Century Western Britain. Further, there is a close linguistic similarity between Arthur and the Medieval version of Vortigern’s name, “Gwrtheyrn.” If the first and last sounds are eliminated they are quite close. Far from having originated with a 2nd Century Roman commander or an Iron Age Celtic god, the name Arthur may simply be a shortened version of Vortigern that arose in the North among later generations. This was a place where several different languages were in competition, and where Brittonic may well have evolved in a significantly different direction than in the mountains of Wales. Doubtless many linguists—linguists who have neither heard nor read a line of the language spoken in North Britain during the 5th Century--will categorically dispute this. But the fact remains that no Romano-British name from the 5th or early 6th Century is linguistically more closely related to “Arthur” than the name “Uortigern” and its variants.”[39]

Most tellingly, the stories of the latter days of both Vortigern and Arthur have an eerie similarity. In one case the “bad” Vortigern loses his legitimacy because of his Saxon wife, while his “good son” Ambrosius/Vortimer fights her people. In the other, the “good” Arthur, betrayed by his faithless wife, fights his “bad” usurping nephew, Mordred. In both cases an older ruler is confronted by a younger usurper who is his relative. In both cases the ruler’s downfall is hastened by his wife. In both cases he experiences a supernatural death. Only the moral positions are reversed.

If we consider the hypothesis that Arthur and Vortigern are the same ruler, however, this has some further implications for 5th Century British history. If the two personalities are the same, this would make Wippedsfleot/ Rhyd yr afael a candidate for that ”...Camlann in which Arthur and Medrawt fell.”[40] But if we see Ambrosius as the great bulwark against the Saxons, as the Historia testifies, then the leader of the Saxon side in this third battle can only have been…Arthur himself. This may seem something like heresy. But as we shall see, it is the hypothesis that best fits the facts. It also answers some questions that have baffled scholars for decades.

The main objection to the above hypothesis is: how could a ruler who betrayed his country possibly come to be known as Britain’s greatest literary hero? The answer lies in posing another question: why should there be, as we have postulated, two distinct British names for the same battle: Rhyd yr afael and Camlann? To answer this we need to look at where the accounts of the two rulers first originated. The account of Vortigern comes from Gildas. Now the good cleric obviously has some interesting intellectual baggage. He sees Rome’s hegemony as a Good Thing, and much of his praise for Ambrosius revolves around the latter’s claim to be the “last of the Romans.” The most Romanized part of the former diocese was of course Lowland Britain. This was also the most intensely cultivated, and probably the area most heavily taxed for the annona payments. But the first accounts of Arthur originate in the poetry of the “Men of the North,” in such works as the Gododdin. This was an area thinly populated and thinly cultivated, especially in the years following the break with Rome. Its contributions to Saxon maintenance would have been comparatively slight, and the same may have been true for other remote areas such as Wales and Cornwall. These “peripheral” regions would have suffered least in the effort to support the Saxons, and thus would have been the most likely to rally to Vortigern/Riothamus upon his return from the Continent. To the inhabitants of the North and the West, “Arthur” remained the legitimate ruler who had brought twenty years of peace to Britain. Ambrosius was a usurper who was tearing apart the British-Saxon coalition. Significantly, Camlann is seen in later British literature not as a battle involving Saxons, but as a civil war—and from a “northern” point of view, this was perfectly true.

But the Annales citation, and all subsequent Welsh tradition confirm that Arthur fell in this battle. And again this helps to explain why there would be diametrically opposing views of him in North and South. Once the “Proud Tyrant” was dead, the Saxons would have been beyond anyone’s control. To Gildas and his contemporaries, growing up in a world devastated by the Revolt, Vortigern could only be considered the arch traitor. The “fire of vengeance” that the good cleric describes dipped its “fierce red tongue” in the western ocean, i.e. Gloucestershire and Somerset, and the memory of it lingered for generations.[41] But this same “tongue” is much less likely to have licked the uplands of Demetia, or the Dales of the North. These areas were remote, with little worth stealing. Succeeding generations in the North would have had little memory of Saxon depredations—and considerable consciousness that a man named “Arthur” had once ruled Britain and brought an oasis of peace in a century of strife. By the time the two views were recombined in the 9th Century there was no inkling that the two rulers—of equal but opposite significance—were the same man.

This leaves only Ambrosius’ final battle to deal with. It apparently took place seven years later, and it is of interest that neither the ASC nor the Historia give it a name.[42] The Saxons claim a great victory and great spoil (which might hark back to their exploits during the Revolt). However, Gildas tells us that Ambrosius took control of British resistance after the Revolt, and eventually led his people to victory. The fact that no more mention is made of Hengist might also support this view. The Historia’s account reads as follows:

“The third battle was fought in the open country by the inscribed Stone on the shore of the Gallic Sea. The barbarians were beaten and he was victorious. They fled to their keels and were drowned as they clambered aboard them like women.”[43]

Obviously, the victory was not as decisive as the entry implies, and the Historia’s assertion that Ambrosius died soon afterward might explain the Saxon survival that would eventually bring most of Britain under their control. Ironically, if we apply our three-year “rule” this would put the final encounter in 476, the date the last Western Roman emperor was deposed. It was on this signal date that the final act of Late Antique Britain was brought to a close.

Many will dismiss the above scenario out of hand, contending that in the absence of a clear “paper trail” no account of British history is possible. The Historia and the ASC can only have been fabricated centuries after the reputed time of Vortigern and Ambrosius. Gildas alone may be used as a source, and even he must be read with great caution. The writer will readily concede that the above chronology is only a hypothesis. But he must also point out that most of what has been outlined above is in Gildas, if we really look. For example, the ASC citation for 418 (more probably 421, the year of Constantius’ death)[44] reads as follows:

“In this year the Romans collected all the treasures which were in Britain and hid some in the earth so that no one afterwards could find them, and some they took with them into Gaul.”[45]

This agrees with Gildas statement about the Romans departing, “never to return,”[46] but (as with the conflicting accounts of Vortigern and Arthur) puts a totally different moral “spin” on the event. We have already noted the Appeal to Aetius that is also in the ASC, but wrongly dated. Finally, and most critically, the four battles that Ambrosius fights in both the Historia and the ASC are recognizable as the “see-saw” contest described by Gildas.[47] But at the same time these encounters were not incidents in a partisan war a la King Alfred, as might be inferred from reading Gildas in isolation. Instead Ambrosius’ four battles testify to a complex and politically sophisticated relationship between Saxon and Briton. These encounters were the centerpiece of a series of events that ended in a tragedy sought by neither side. Gildas alone can never give us a clear picture of this era. But his work still argues that a coherent chronology for events in 5th Century Britain already existed in the early 6th Century, one which directly influenced four other accounts that appeared centuries later.[48]

Many will, of course, still find this hypothesis unacceptable, particularly the assertion that three hitherto distinct personalities are in fact all the same ruler. The best reply that the writer can make to such skepticism is to point to the number of questions about 5th Century Britain that this hypothesis answers. Specifically it:

  • Tells how and why the Arthurian legend arose;
  • Gives a plausible context for the rivalry between Vortigern and Ambrosius (AKA Arthur and Mordred);
  • Gives a plausible motive for the expedition of 469;
  • Explains the proximate cause of the Saxon Revolt;
  • Explains the reported passivity of Britons during the Revolt;
  • Explains why establishing the true identity of this ruler has been such a difficult affair.

This hypothesis is also in some sense “testable,” for it gives answers to a number of questions that have puzzled scholars for years. First of all, it gives a plausible reason for the abrupt appearance of “four Arthurs” in such far-flung places as Dyfed and Dal Riada in the next century. The fact that this name does not appear in other, more central areas of Britain has been much commented upon. Some regard it as proof that no one by the name of “Arthur” ever held sway in Britain. However, if Vortigern fought on the Saxon side, with British forces from the North and West, this phenomenon makes perfect sense. It is in precisely these “peripheral” areas where the name of Arthur would still be held in high regard.[49]  As well, the report by Sidonius Apollinaris of peace between the Saxons and the Gallo-Roman leader Avitus in 455, combined with a citation of renewed Saxon raiding in the early 470s are explicable as “echos” of Saxon behavior on the opposite side of the Channel[50], as well as evidence of Vortigern’s twenty year reign. Finally, the provenance of a 6th Century Saxon ruler who just happened to be named Cerdic becomes understandable in light of a British-Saxon Foedus beginning in 450 and ending in 469. If Cerdic were born of a mixed Saxon-British family during these years, he would have been between 26 and 45 at the time the ASC reports he “arrived” in Britain with his son. He would have been between 50 and 69 when he became king of Wessex and between 65 and 84 at the time of his death. The reported ASC dates make it almost certain that Cerdic was born sometime during the postulated alliance between Saxon and Briton, and so was a product of both cultures.[51] In short, all of the very diverse phenomena cited above are best explained by a single hypothesis.

In closing, it might be useful to ask whether or not it is the paucity of sources (rather than their inherent reliability) which has given rise to most of the doubts about the evidence for this period. For example, if we knew as little about 19th Century Europe as we know about 5th Century Britain, it is unlikely that anyone would credit that an Italian emperor was leading a French army in Russia eighteen years before the last Bourbon king was deposed. Indeed, more than a few scholars would give us very plausible reasons as to why this event could not have occurred, and then provide a detailed explanation as to how the evidence was probably fabricated.[52] Equally, we know so little about the context in which the earliest sources for 5th Century Britain were produced (with the exception of the Historia’s anti-Vortigern Life of St. Germanus) that whether or not this material was fabricated can never be determined with any kind of certainty. The writer has taken a different approach, attempting to resolve the apparent contradictions between the sources, and so find a consistent chronology for the events in this period. In a word, he has tried to formulate an hypothesis that “best fits” the earliest known evidence. This still may not be certainty.

But it does partake, at least to some small degree, in the scientific method.

PROPOSED CHRONOLOGY
  • 421 - Roman forces assigned to control the Straits of Dover and other areas of Britain are withdrawn at the death of the newly-crowned emperor Constantius. (Please see footnote [43])
  • 429 - Saint Germanus participates in the defense of Lowland Britain, opposing Saxons probably already settled in Britain.
  • 441 - Saxons gain control of areas in Britain closest to Gaul. London falls.
  • 446 - The British elite unsuccessfully petitions for aid from Aetius.
  • 447 - Vortigern is chosen to lead British resistance.
  • 450-452 - Peace is made with the Saxons, who also agree to assume federate status.
  • 458 - Ambrosius Aurelianus wins a battle against insurgents, made up for the most part of Saxons led by Hengist.
  • 459 - Hengist defeats Ambrosius at Noviomagus, threatening London; Vortigern grants concessions to the Saxons, bringing ten more year of peace.
  • 469 - Vortigern leads a costly joint British-Saxon expedition to Gaul, transported in Saxon ships. The force is defeated. Most of the British elements are marooned in Gaul.
  •        Saxons return in their ships to a country unwilling or unable to feed its federates. Ambrosius leads the remainder of British Lowland levies against a force made up of Saxons and loyal Britons, headed by Vortigern. The latter is slain, while the last major professional British military force on the island is effectively destroyed.
  •        The Saxons make an unopposed rampage through much of Lowland Britain, displacing most of the British elite.
  • 476 - Ambrosius leads a successful counterattack that temporarily displaces many Saxons from Kent. He dies soon afterward.

Discordia - Towards a Chronology for 5th century Britain is Copyright 2005, Patrick Constable. All rights reserved. The hypothesis presented in this article has been registered with the US Copyright Office (TXu 1-094-375, 24 Jan 2003 and TXu 1-204-071, 16 Sep 2004). Used with permission.

Comments to: Patrick Constable

Notes

[1] Morris argued not only for two “Ambrosii,” but for two Saxon Revolts, raising the possibility that he may be “double counting” some of the evidence. Morris 2001: 48, 71, 75-76.
[2] Historia 66, Morris 1980: 39.
[3] Bede I, 15, Sherly-Price 1968: 55.
[4] Dumville 1972-74: 439-445, Dumville 1975-76: 78-95, Dumville, 1986. 1-26.
[5] Nash-Williams 1950: 123.
[6] Higham presents one of the most recent arguments for the position that most sources after Gildas contain little if any evidence relevant to the 5th Century. Higham, 2002: 98-169.
[7] Historia, 39-47, Morris 1980: 29-33. Note also that the Historia’s author would have been well aware of the date of St. Germanus’ first visit from Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle. Dumville, 1977: 177.
[8] The writer is aware of Dumville’s contention that the Pillar of Eliseg’s St. Germanus is actually St. Garmon of the Isle of Man. Dumville 1977: 186-87. This is an interesting hypothesis, but far from definitive. Unless Constantius of Lyon’s work is complete fantasy, Germanus would have blessed thousands of Britons during his visit(s). Moreover, it would have been entirely plausible (and politic) for a middle-aged ruler coming to power in 450 to claim to have received this blessing during his youth. Further, it is interesting to note that one reason many sites in Wales dedicated to “Garmon” (or a variation thereof) were thought to be those of the Manx bishop (and not Germanus of Auxerre) was because “Garmon” could not be linguistically derived from “Germanus.” Ifor Williams, “Hen Chwedlun,” Trans. Hon. Soc. Cymm., 1946-47, in Bowen, 1954: 32. We are then told by Dumville that the “Germanus” inscribed on the Pillar of Eliseg must necessarily be…Garmon. Dumville 1977: 186-87. Finally, regardless of the real origins of the Powysian Germanus, “Nennius” clearly means for his Germanus to be the St. Germanus, and not some insular saint.
[9] Maund 2000: 38-41.
[10] Historia 37, Morris 1980: 28.
[11] Nash-Williams 1950: 123.
[12] Dumville, 1972-74: 442-3.
[13] Brooks 1989: 63-64.
[14] Dumville, 1972-74: 439-441. A full examination of the Historia is beyond the scope of this article, but another equation is of some interest: 452 – 28 = 424. This may be the real source of the Historia’s date for Vortigern’s accession. Dumville’s description of a “confusion” in the mind of the Historia’s author between dates counted from the Incarnation (i.e. Anno Domini dates) and from the Passion (calculated as 28 years later) may indicate that he came to the logical, but mistaken conclusion that Bede’s Incarnation date was really a Passion date. Note also that from a Saxon point of view, the date for the Adventus and the date for Vortigern’s “accession” would effectively be identical.
[15] Historia, 66 Morris 1980: 39.
[16] Historia 37-48, Morris 1980: 28-33.
[17] ASC, Garmonsway 1972: 12-13.
[18] Gildas I, 20, Winterbottom 1978: 23-24.
[19] Historia, Morris 1980: 46.
[20] Note that the Appeal talks of “barbarian” depredations, not of Irish or Pictish invaders, as Gildas says elsewhere. Gildas I, 20, Winterbottom 1978: 23-24. Taken together with the Gallic Chronicle of 452’s date of 441 for the “fall of Britain” this suggests that Saxons had taken over large tracts of eastern Britain, to include London, before the Adventus. Muhlberger 1990: 154.
[21] Gildas I, 20, Winterbottom 1978: 24.
[22] One might also note that the entry for 441 in the Gallic Chronicle of 452 in no way suggests that this was a mercenary revolt, instead of a barbarian incursion typical of the Migration Period. Muhlberger 1990: 154.
[23] ASC, Garmonsway 1972: 12-13. The Historia’s report that Vitalinus was Ambrosius’ opponent at Guollop is in all likelihood an example of a phenomenon common during the Later Roman Empire: the collusion of Romans and barbarians on a regular basis. The careers of Aegidius, Arvandus, Orestes and Vortigern himself all testify to this. That Roman would fight alongside Saxon against other Romans should thus be no surprise.
[24] Historia 43, Morris 1980: 31.
[25] Historia 44, Morris 1980: 31.
[26] Brooks identifies Episford with Aegelsthrep, but only on the basis of the Historia’s report of Horsa’s death in that encounter. In the writer’s opinion sequence and linguistic similarities far outweigh this. Further, Cateyrn is best seen as one of the 12 British nobles killed at Wippedsfleot. Brooks 1989: 62-63.
[27] ASC, Garmonsway 1972: 12-13.
[28] Historia 44, Morris 1980: 31.
[29] Brooks is one of many who have drawn attention to the similarities between the two “battle lists.” What is of even more interest is his argument that the differences between the two versions are not due to errors in transmission, but to variations between the “official” histories of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The writer would postulate that variants of this narrative may also have existed in many of the British kingdoms before the 9th Century. Brooks 1989: 63-64.
[30] Historia 37, Morris 1980: 28.
[31] Jordanes 95, Mierow 1915: 74.
[32] Alcock’s section on “Chronology” remains one of the most succinct explanations of this issue. Alcock: 1971: 17-20.
[33] Gildas 25, Winterbottom 1978: 28.
[34] The word “sailed” is used deliberately here. Please see Haywood’s discussion about the probable existence of Saxon sailing vessels. Haywood 1991: 96-103.
[35] ASC, Garmonsway 1972: 12-13.
[36] Historia 44, Morris 1980: 31.
[37] Gildas 24, Winterbottom 1978: 27.
[38] Geoffrey Ashe of course first postulated the equation of Arthur with Riothamus. Ashe 1985: 96-100. The name “Riothamus” itself does have some linguistic connections with the other names, but is more likely emblematic of an honorific this ruler assumed shortly before the expedition. Jordanes specifically refers to him as a “king” and Anthemius could plausibly have awarded him that title. Jordanes 95, Mierow 1915: 74.
[39] This view contradicts the Malcor and Littleton thesis that the Roman commander Artorius Castus was the original Arthur. Littleton and Malcor 2000: 62-63. Although their hypothesis should never be rejected outright, in the absence of any other example of a Roman commander (vice ruler) engendering a legend, it remains doubtful as a full explanation for the Arthur phenomenon. The writer would also argue that, setting aside their historicity, such Latin citations as “40 Years of Fear,” the Appeal to Aetius,” and the two ”Battle Lists” are all political statements. The first two tell of the parlous condition of Britain 410-450, the second two underpin the legitimacy of, respectively, Vortigern and Ambrosius, based on their proven abilities to protect the Britons from foreign foes.
[40] Morris 1980: 46. Note that this does not necessarily mean that the Medrawt in this citation was identical to Ambrosius, who could not have died in his penultimate battle. The later conflation of Medrawt with the relative of Vortigern/Arthur who betrays him may well be a literary device by Northern bards to maintain Ambrosius’ position as a British hero-figure, and thus not an opponent of the hero Arthur. The “Pa Gur’s” cryptic phrase “Before the lord [or lords] of Emrys I saw Cai hastening,” could be an early reference to Ambrosius’ presence at the battle.
[41] Gildas 24, Winterbottom 1978: 27.
[
42] The writer does not consider this a candidate for Badon, and also believes that previous dates postulated for this battle are incorrect. He hopes to detail why in a future article.
[43] Historia 44, Morris 1980: 31.
[44] The writer would add three years to this date not merely on the basis of the ASC’s date of 443 for the Appeal to Aetius, but because the year 421 also happens to be the date of the death of the Patrician, then emperor Constantius. The latter re-established Rome’s rule in Gaul in 418, at times using naval power to defeat the Goths. Of all the imperial rulers at this time he had both the will and the foresight to re-establish Roman control over the Straits of Dover. His death brought on a power struggle that recommenced Rome’s slide toward anarchy, and a withdrawal in 421 would make perfect sense, as well as support Gildas’ passage.
[45] ASC, Garmonsway 1972: 10-11.
[46] Gildas 18, Winterbottom 1978: 23.
[47] Gildas 25, Winterbottom 1978: 28.
[48] These would be, respectively, (1) Bede’s date for the Adventus, (2) the Historia Brittonum’s accounts of “Vortigern’s battle list” and the battle of Guollop, (3) the Annales Cambria’s citation of Ambrosius’ penultimate battle, and (4) the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s Saxon version of Ambrosius’ “battle list.”
[49] Alcock 1971: 73. The hypothesis outlined above may help explain other hitherto puzzling phenomenon as well. Vortigern’s wife Sevira is mentioned on the Pillar of Eliseg as being a “daughter” (more plausibly descendant) of Maximus. The latter is also a likely candidate for that ancestor of Ambrosius who “wore the purple,” indicating a possible relationship between Ambrosius and Sevira. For example, if he were a son of hers from a previous marriage, this would explain why Vortimer is called the “son” of Vortigern in the Historia, yet is not acknowledged as such on the Pillar of Eliseg. Nash-Williams 1950: 123. Too, a resurgence under Vortigern helps to explain both the mid-century “town-home” found in Verulamium, as well as the Patching hoard’s continental coins from the 460’s. The latter is also a small but compelling piece of evidence for a Saxon Revolt in 469. Dark 2000: 55.
[50] Sidonius C. VII, 388-90, Anderson1984: 150-1. Sidonius makes no mention of any fighting when the “Saxon raiding abated,” so the likeliest option is a treaty between the two foes. His next mention of Saxon raiding occurs only in about 475, in his letter to Namatius. Sidonius VIII, 6, 13-18, Anderson 1984: 428-33.
[51] ASC, Garmonsway 1972: 14-17.
[52] The historical record would also show multiple identities for this ruler, resulting from those sources that refer to him by such varying names as: “the Emperor,” “Napoleon,” “Buonaparte,” “Boney,” and “the Little Corporal.”


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