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Roman Britain

The End of Roman Britain

by Peter Kessler, 30 June 2007

Part 4: The new ruler of Britain?

Whether or not he claimed the title of governor of Britain, or even emperor of Britain (which was traditional whenever a usurper had been raised in the past merely because the Roman empire saw it as the only means of legitimising a claim to authority), the effect would have been the same - administrative and perhaps military control of the island by a single central authority figure.

Whether or not there really was a single, unrecorded ruling figure in Britain between 409 to circa 425, the trend must certainly have been in the direction of the increased localisation of life (the same process happened in Gaul later in the century).

Magnus Maximus had already established principalities in Wales, and kingdoms also existed between the two Walls to the north. The same tendency seems to have become apparent in other areas of the country, most especially in the south-west, where the Dumnonii had retained a semi or entirely independent existence as a Roman client kingdom.

It seems that it was from those areas that were more advanced in terms of their independence (relatively or completely) from central control that the new rulers of the island would spring.

While it isn't known what form the new administration took, an important limit can be set on the possibilities. The Romano-British upper classes had not shared in the burst of political activity which had occurred in the latter part of the fourth century when their Gallo-Roman counterparts had assumed leading positions in the imperial hierarchy.

This must have meant that, apart from any senior officials previously posted into Britain who had become turncoats rather than be ejected or murdered, Britain was now very short of men with experience of senior office. It would therefore be extremely difficult - even if they had wished to do so - to organise the sort of centralised system that Constantine III relied upon.

Perhaps the call made to the Continent for help in 410 backs up this idea.

Much has been made of the 'rescript' [4] from Honorius at this time alleged to have been addressed to the cities of Britain (and not to a vicarius, comes, or dux, implying either that these ranks had not been refilled or that Honorius did not want to recognise the new holders and imply their legitimacy by that act). The Britons were instructed to organise their own defence [5].

This has usually been interpreted as a loyalist appeal to the imperial court in Ravenna. Although it is not possible to build a picture of a loyalist party in Britain on this basis, the rescript would imply an appeal for help, or at least a request for instruction. At most it may be a readiness to barter submission to imperial authority in return for assistance (as in 389). The perceived troubles were so acute at the time (even if it was mostly internal political troubles) that it would not be surprising if they had appealed to all and sundry.

The drift towards decentralisation

Although the rescript was negative in its content there is no reason to assume that Honorius was abandoning Britain forever, just as there was still the likelihood that the Britons believed in the credibility of the western government itself, even if some of them hoped to keep themselves out of its clutches.

That hope would have been strengthened by the final failure of Constantine III's revolt in 411, and by the subsequent ruthless purge of Continental officers and aristocrats who had supported him. Theoretically, Honorius had now regained control of Gaul and Spain, but he could make no move on restoring Britain (or even Armorica, which was now also independent of imperial administration and possibly under the control of a British monarchy set up or encouraged by Magnus Maximus). The emperor's position was still very weak, thanks to the barbarian settlers in Italy and Gaul, most especially the influential Goths.

Part 1: Western Decline
Part 2: Home Defence
Part 3: Cutting Ties with Rome
Part 4: New Ruler of Britain?
Part 5: Pelagian and pro-Celtic?
[4] Rescripts were one of the normal ways in which the emperors laid down law and issued instructions: they were in the form of answers to queries addressed to them.

[5] Zosimus, VI x. 2 - letter of 410 to the civitates or local authorities

After Constantine's fall, Roman control over Gaul would never be quite the same as before, and the best Honorius could manage was occasional punitive expeditions to northern Gaul in an attempt at 'restoring law and liberty', such as the slave revolt which was crushed by Rutilius' relation, Exuperantius, in 417 - the first such expedition north since Constantine's fall [6].

The possibility of a weakened, but independent-minded pro-Roman loyalist faction that may have been holding onto power through one or more 'usurpers' in Britain has been established, as has the probability that it would have been severely lacking in experienced military and civil office holders. This could have rendered it powerless to prevent a drift towards the localisation of affairs - but there probably wasn't a collapse.

Work on unearthing coin hoards suggests that by the mid-420s the use of coinage (usually silver coins) as the means of substantial payment seems to have died out more or less altogether. There was coinage still to be had, as finds in Bermondsey prove. These coins dated to 380-400, but they were well worn, suggesting that they were still circulating perhaps fifty years later. This probably wasn't the case country-wide, however, and a high level of self-sufficiency in both civil service and the army had already become the established norm in Britain for the best part of a century, so the absence of coinage in itself is far from being a sign of the collapse of civilisation.

[6] Rutilius Namatianus, De Reditu, I. 215 F.

Corn-drying equipment found in a late town mansion at Verulamium (St Albans) highlights the trend towards provincial self-sufficiency, which is equally supported by the previously large-scale trade in factory-made objects, such as the sizable 'Alice Holt' Hampshire pottery industry which operated into the start of the fifth century [7], and which could be kept reasonably cheap by a widescale distribution base.

Suddenly these wares could no longer be paid for by the barter system which had been slowly replacing the use of coinage. The 'Alice Holt' trade was introducing new wares into the beginning of the fifth century, yet by around 420, except for the very occasional sherd of imported Mediterranean pottery, all Roman factory-made pottery had disappeared and nothing but a little locally-made material had replaced it.

Civilisation may not have collapsed in Britain, but it was certainly feeling the pains of being cut off from Europe.

Political gains by the pro-Celtic faction

The more removed events become from the year 409, the more murky and open to confusion they appear to be.

Although details are sketchy to the most extreme level, it seems that it was central Wales, always an area that had been less affected by Roman culture and influence, which saw the climb to power of a pro-Celtic movement which, if it didn't start that way, eventually fell under the leadership of one of the new brand of local authority figures - Vortigern. While his status and exact role in this world - and not least his real name - remain uncertain, the fact that he commands such an outstanding place in political events of the time places him high in the chain of command.

[7] Current Archaeology No 54 (1976), 212 ff, and M A B Lyne and R S Jefferies, 'The Alice Holt/Farnham Roman pottery industry', CBA Research Report No 30, published at the end of 1979.

He seems to have been opposed by what was potentially a pro-Roman faction which now seemed to be centred on the Roman city of Glevum (modern Gloucester - again in the west). At first the division seems to have been merely a political one - perhaps as a reaction to the events of 409. Apparently based at Glevum, Aurelianus Ambrosius may have held actual power before 409 as a Roman senator, and it may have been his wish that Britain maintain links of some form with the imperial court. However, it is clear that Vortigern's movement gained overall control, and Vortigern himself became governor - or emperor - of Britain.

Vortigern achieved control during the Roman consulship of Felix and Taurus. This places the event around 425, although by now he was probably administering a government which contained proto-kingdoms or semi-independent territories rather than provinces, especially in the west. The suggestion that he forcibly gained power may infer that the pro-Roman party had held onto the reigns of power after 409, but in a much weakened form - a bit like a modern government lurching from one political crisis to another until it is ousted by a general election.

While this political manoeuvring was taking place, civilisation had been preserved in Britain at least this far into the fifth century, and town life continued to operate under the new reality of a more restricted trading market - but it still continued. Perhaps not entirely smoothly, though, as there was some religious discord in the country.

The first visit by St Germanus

In 429 St Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, a former Roman barrister and provincial governor, and Lupus, bishop of Troyes, visited Britain on a mission for the pope to fight the Pelagian 'heresy'.

The two visitors from Roman Gaul met with a leading Pelagian cleric named Agricola, himself the son of a bishop. He was clearly being backed by a powerful and still extant Romano-British aristocracy (the principle proponents of the heresy). The meeting was probably held at Verulamium or Londinium, as Germanus later paid a visit to the shrine of St Alban. This was clearly an important meeting for the British, religiously as well as politically, and a huge crowd turned out to witness it.

  • c.418 - Vortigern assumes control within his homeland, presumed to be Powys
  • c.425 - Gains overall control of Britain and divides Powys between his sons
  • 429 - Visit of Germanus to fight the Pelagian heresy
  • c.437/38 - Open civil war erupts between Vortigern and Ambrosius the Elder
  • c.440 - Taking advantage of the civil war the Saxon foederati revolt, causing widespread damage
  • 446 - Serious plague hits Britain
  • c.450 - Foederati in Kent rebel, forming their own kingdom
  • c.455 - Vortigern dies after his power has been broken by Ambrosius Aurelianus

The Pelagian party turned out in their very best attire, 'conspicuous for riches, brilliant in dress, and surrounded by a fawning multitude' [8]. They were every inch the proud Gallo-Roman nobility which was so evident in fourth century, decked out in brilliant, multicoloured costume. They made it very clear to their Continental visitors that they were not a ruined class living in bondage to savage barbarian masters (as some of their contemporaries in Gaul were already doing), nor even a few fortunate survivors, but a substantial body of men of influence who carried weight both with their personal following and the community at large.

[8] Constantius, Vitus Germanus (The Life of Germanus). xiv.

Dr J N L Myres made a convincing case for a struggle in the early fifth century between Pelagian heretics and a Catholic party in Britain (Pelagius himself had originally come from Britain) [9].

It would be an interesting implication that apart from (or perhaps instead of) defence, the prime issue now was heresy rather than paganism.

[9] J N L Myers, JRS 50 (1960), 21 ff.


Text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.