Despite the status and wealth of those members of the
aristocracy who turned up to meet Germanus, when being confronted
about their Pelagianism by Germanus they were no match for the
Roman's skill at the still effective powers of public debate, the
art of rhetoric in which any Roman gentleman was trained. Germanus
won over the crowd, and defeated the aristocratic arguments.
In fact, it seems that such was the feeling against
the nobility that they were only just saved from the attentions of a
violent mob. Clearly their management of the country had not endeared
them to the general populace.
Germanus also met 'a man with tribunician power' (vir
tribunicae potestatis) during his visit, and apparently miraculously
healed his blind daughter . Although the use of the word tribunus
as a military rank seems to be extremely loosely used in the Late Empire,
on top of the evidence for the survival of Roman life at Verulamium, there
exists the possibility that this tribune had commanded a unit of the Roman
army which had disbanded after the break with Rome, and was now occupying
a more locally-granted an appointment to help manage the city's defences.
Germanus would certainly know a legitimate officer when
he saw one so his biographer's account, if it hasn't been distorted, should
be believable. However tenuous may be the connection between the tribune's
rank and his assumed position, it remains an enticing possibility.
One wonders about the condition of the city, though.
Many Roman buildings clearly still stood and were occupied,
but some later construction of much more modest abodes must have taken place.
While Germanus was recovering from a broken leg following his visit to St
Alban's shrine and his return 'from this place' (presumably back to
Verulamium or Londinium) , 'fire broke out in a cottage [not a house]
near his lodging, and after destroying the adjoining dwellings which at that
place were thatched with reeds from the marshes, it was carried by the wind
to the cottage where he lay'.
If this was indeed one of the two cities mentioned above
then the standard of living, at least in this quarter of the city, had
dropped somewhat. However, it may well be the case that Germanus had
elected to reside amongst peasants or tradesmen rather than with those
wealthy Pelagians whom he met earlier, and that the wealthier folk still
occupied the Roman heart of the city.
Religious debate aside, however, defence was still clearly
an issue. The army (or at least an army, in whatever form it now
took) in Britain together with the laeti must have proved too few
in number, too limited in its abilities, or perhaps simply too stretched
in its capacity, to be able to meet all of the demands that were now being
made of it. It seems that the Picts and Saxons had teamed up again to raid
the coast and Germanus took command of the local defences, traditionally at
Mold in North Wales, and managed to see off the raiders.
The fact that he had to conduct a mass baptism of his
troops before the battle suggests that he was not receiving help from
the nobility (many of whom he had very recently upset) but that his men
were mostly from the pagan rural Britons in the rough Welsh countryside
who made up the farming workforce.
After that victory, Germanus' eventful visit seems to
have ended, and he returned to Gaul.
Battling British politics
Perhaps Vortigern was among the Pelagians whom Germanus
managed to verbally defeat during his visit. There certainly seems to
have been an undercurrent of disaffection from the people for the nobles
who met Germanus, and who narrowly escaped a lynching.
If they were part of Vortigern's ruling party then
the disaffection would certainly have involved him to an extent, as
it still does whenever something scandalous occurs in modern British
politics. Gildas states that Vortigern was outflanked in internal
British politics, suggesting an opposition in government. His powerbase
may have been far from reliable at this point in time, so perhaps he was
also not able to rely on the military forces at his disposal, especially
if some of them had previously been supplied by Catholic, or pro-Roman,
territorial leaders within Britain.
In the year following Germanus' visit, and in line with
standard Roman imperial policy in Gaul, Vortigern brought in Saxon allies
(foederati) to help restore order on the borders. As with previous
deployments of barbarian allies, they were probably positioned outside
various cities in small settlements and, according to Gildas, they did the
job for which they were hired. It has already been shown that Germanus
himself had to mount an expedition of his own in 429 to fight off raiding
barbarians, but the problem cannot have been entirely solved - unless we
look at the situation from the political angle.
If Vortigern was losing his grip on power, perhaps the
mercenaries were introduced to give him an extra bargaining chip, and
some hired muscle if he required it. This helps paint a picture of
Vortigern's power slipping away from him and his opposition perhaps
gaining in strength as a result. If this is correct then clearly a
confrontation was becoming inevitable.
According to what few scraps of evidence remain, the rift
between Vortigern's pro-Celtic faction and that of the pro-Roman Aurelius
Ambrosius (Ambrosius the Elder) erupted into open hostility circa
437/8. He and Vortigern fought the battle of Guolloppum (Cat Guolph,
identified as Wallop in Hampshire). Whatever the outcome of the battle,
and whatever other action took place as part of this civil war, it did
nothing to strengthen Vortigern's authority, and doubtless damaged
political cohesion in Britain even further, as well as weakening its
already overstretched military forces.
Taking advantage of the political turmoil, circa
440 the Saxon foederati, almost certainly positioned around the
country near the cities, revolted, ravaging the island from east to west
in much the same way as the Vikings would four hundred years later. During
this catastrophe, the warring British factions probably agreed to temporarily
patch up their differences while they fought a common enemy, but Ambrosius
the Elder was killed, and Vortigern struggled for some time to reassert what
little of his authority remained.
For many this was the last straw. Life in western Gaul,
in Armorica and Soissons, would have looked far more stable and settled
that it was looking in Britain so, due to the social instability caused
by this devastating event, there was a wave of migrations by Britons to
Gaul, especially to the already established British colony in Armorica.
A Saxon warrior's mask
This disastrous period, the first real calamity
since the barbarian attacks of 409, is the probable source of the
Britons' appeal for help to Rome around this time, suggesting that
the barbarians were taking advantage of Roman preoccupations
elsewhere. Gildas wrote:
Again, therefore, the wretched remnant,
sending to Aėtius, a powerful Roman citizen, address[ed] him
as follows: - 'To Aėtius, now consul for the third time: the
groans of the Britons'.
Calamity follows catastrophe
Eventually, order was restored. Those cities that
were still inhabited were repaired and their defences restored.
Improvement works were carried out on some of them and they were
cleaned up and restored to a habitable condition. The population
had declined somewhat due to deaths by civil war, Saxon pillaging,
and the flight of many families to Armorica, and there appears
to have been a level of contraction in the proportions of the
inhabited areas of cities, but life went on.
Unfortunately, disaster returned in 446 in the
form of serious plague in southern Britain. Unburied bodies could
be found in the streets and more cities were abandoned. For many
who remained, their worlds contracted further, with them often
living in wooden huts inside the local amphitheatre or similar
Roman buildings, as was the case in Corinum (modern Cirencester).
There, the amphitheatre's entrance was reduced in size, making
it more defendable.
The picture of urban occupation appears to have
been very varied across the country. Some cities seem to have
been abandoned relatively early, either deliberately or as a
result of being sacked during the revolt, or due the plague,
while others continued to survive, if not thrive, well into the
fifth century and beyond.
This period of partial urban abandonment coincides
with evidence of the reuse and refortification of Iron Age hill
forts. Cadbury Congresbury in Somerset started to produce substantial
quantities of Mediterranean pottery at this time, with smaller
amounts also coming from South Cadbury, as local leaders moved
their residences to more protected locations.
Aegidius and Aėtius
Aegidius was elected magister militum
in Gaul under the prefect, Aėtius, in around 450. Later he became
chief minister in Gaul and was an ardent supporter of Majorian,
whom he helped to power. When Majorian lost ground against replacement
prefect, Ricimer, Aegidius rebelled and created a Roman rump state
that became to be known as the Domain of Soissons.
Gildas asserted that the Britons, having been
deprived of Roman military protection after 409, wrote to a "Roman
commander Agitus". While generally being accepted as Aėtius, the
possibility remains that it could be Aegidius.
Such a disastrous decade and the necessity for
reorganisation and recovery that must have followed it clearly
put paid to any thoughts of continuing the civil war, even if
there was a new leader to take over the command of Vortigern's
A footnote to the religious confrontation in 426
is that Germanus returned to Britain circa 446/7 to rescue
the Catholics from 'certain people' who were again promulgating
the Pelagian heresy. It appears that this was a last hurrah for the
Pelagians. Germanus was able to persuade the populace to embrace the
Catholic faith again, and the Pelagians, who had been banished by common
consent of the Britons, were taken back to the Continent with Germanus.
It may be a coincidence, but the Pelagian heresy
clearly seems to have been at its strongest while the proposed
pro-Celtic faction was in charge. Once the pro-Romanised faction
was again in charge the heresy seems to have been entirely
eradicated. Does this religious alignment of Pelagians against
Catholics tie in with the assumed political alignment in Britain,
with the anti-Romans following anti-Roman methods of worship? It's
an intriguing idea which is supported by the view of the Pelagians
in 446 being a last remnant who were then expelled from the
Now apparently almost entirely friendless and
probably desperate for new allies, Vortigern would naturally have
followed the normally successful policy of hiring more foederati
to bolster his flagging command - the fact that the last group had
caused so much damage notwithstanding.
On the Continent, Aėtius had done precisely the same
thing on a much bigger scale when he settled the Burgundians in Savoy
in 443. In Britain there was probably little immediate threat of the
civil war flaring up again to further threaten his dubious position,
so it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. The fact that these
new allies would turn on him in the worst possible way may not even have
occurred to him, although he does seem to have changed tactics in
settling them, taken the precaution of keeping them well away from
any British cities by allotting them land on an island.
The ruined remains of Canterbury
Either way, the 'Adventus Saxonum' revolt of circa
450 was worse than the short-lived pillaging of a decade previously.
Kent was quickly lost during some apparently hard fighting and a Germanic
kingdom was formed there. Vortigern seems to have lost what little support
remained to him and when, circa 455, Ambrosius Aurelianus, the
presumed son of Ambrosius the Elder, returned to Britain from Armorica
to chase Vortigern out of office, he apparently had little trouble doing
Leaving Roman knowledge
The pro-Romans had won, although the Britain they now
controlled was a very different one from that of 409.
Either way, this can be taken as a point at which
Britain left Roman knowledge and contact almost completely. While the
Roman way of life had continued fairly smoothly between 409 to about
437, the subsequent civil war, foederati rebellion, plague,
emigration, and the loss of east coast territory, all signalled a
significant change in the way British society would survive in the
future, with the emphasis on Romanisation, and even finding the
resources to maintain it, no longer being something that could be
Brief mentions show that a possible central
administration of some kind continued for perhaps the next half a
century or so, and that it was following the Catholic faith until
at least 480 (according to Germanus' biographer).
However, even by the middle of the fifth century,
the Roman way of life in Britain was becoming a fading memory.
Events in Britain become shrouded in mist during the