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Saturday, 24 January 2015

Gildas and the chronology of the Adventus Saxonum.

Gildas and the chronology of the Adventus Saxonum.

Gildas is our earliest witness to the Adventus Saxonum, or hiring of Saxon mercenaries by the Superbus Tyrannus in the second half of the fifth century yet his chronology is ignored by writers of our histories. Instead a date of 449 is favoured which depends on Bede, a man who knew absolutely nothing about the period and was writing some two hundred years after the event. This incredible lapse of judgement by scholars has been challenged by Myers, Thompson and most recently Christopher Gidlow who suggests 455 for the Adventus. When freed from the prejudice of Bede and the Historia Britonnum the reading of Gildas makes it clear that the Adventus Saxonum (AS) took place many years after the appeal to Aetius, which was sometime after 446 when Aetius was made a consul of Rome for the third time. Gildas states that the Britons made an appeal to Aetius “ thrice consul” , begging for help, as we will read below. Myers suggests that the AS was as much as 20-30 years after the appeal which seems unlikely; Thompson suggesting 12-15 years which would agree better with a reading of Gildas. In this blog I will suggest a date of 464/5 for the Adventus Saxonum as a reading of Gildas allows.

Lets examine Gildas' words then from the DEB, starting with the events just before the appeal to Aetius :
  1. No sooner were they gone, than the Picts and Scots, like worms which in the heat of mid-day come forth from their holes, hastily land again from their canoes, in which they had been carried beyond the Cichican valley, differing one from another in manners, but inspired with the same avidity for blood, and all more eager to shroud their villainous faces in bushy hair than to cover with decent clothing those parts of their body which required it. Moreover, having heard of the departure of our friends, and their resolution never to return, they seized with greater boldness than before on all the country towards the extreme north as far as the wall. To oppose them there was placed on the heights a garrison equally slow to fight and ill adapted to run away, a useless and panic-struck company, who clambered away days and nights on their unprofitable watch. Meanwhile the hooked weapons of their enemies were not idle, and our wretched countrymen were dragged from the wall and dashed against the ground. Such premature death, however, painful as it was, saved them from seeing the miserable sufferings of their brothers and children. But why should I say more? they left their cities, abandoned the protection of the wall and dispersed themselves in flight more desperately than before. The enemy, on the other hand, pursued them with more unrelenting cruelty than before, and butchered our countrymen like sheep, so that their habitations were like those of savage beasts; for they turned their arms upon each other, and for the sake of a little sustenance, imbrued their hands in the blood of their fellow countrymen. Thus foreign calamities were augmented by domestic feuds; so that the whole country was entirely destitute of provisions, save such as could be procured in the chase.
Here Gildas describes the extreme northern territory that fell to the Picts and Irish in the mid to late 440's up to the wall and possibly beyond. This northern territory was lowland Scotland to the wall, possibly called Valentia at this time after it was recovered in the late fourth century from similar barbarian raids. Thompson suggests it was northern Briton to the wall that fell at this time but this makes no sense of 'extreme north' or the fact that the wall was defended. The defence was always to the north. It appears that the Picts and Irish overran Valentia and breached the wall to attack cities just south of it as well. So Gildas continues :
  1. Again, therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follows:-"To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons." And again a little further thus:-"The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned." The Romans, however, could not assist them, and in the meantime the discomfited people, wandering in the woods, began to feel the effects of a severe famine, which compelled many of them without delay to yield themselves up to their cruel persecutors, to obtain subsistence: others of them, however, lying hid in mountains, caves, and woods, continually sallied out from thence to renew the war. And then it was, for the first time, that they overthrew their enemies, who had for so many years been living in their country; for their trust was not in man, but in God; according to the maxim of Philo, "We must have divine assistance, when that of man fails." The boldness of the enemy was for a while checked, but not the wickedness of our countrymen: the enemy left our people, but the people did not leave their sins.
We can see that the appeal to Aetius was made sometime after this major incursion in the far north. Aetius was not thrice Consul until 446, so the appeal was made sometime after this until Aetius died in 454. Aetius is known to have been in northern Gaul in 451 when Attila invaded Gaul and Aetius fought and defeated him in 451 with help from the Visigoths, Saxons, Franks, Burgundians and Armoricans. So we could place the appeal to around these years and suggest it was for this reason that he could not help Britain. So lets place the appeal in 451. Note that this is the time our historians state that the Saxons Mercenaries had already arrived by! They hadn't even been invited yet!! Gildas continues :
  1. For it has always been a custom with our nation, it is at present, to be impotent in repelling foreign foes, but bold and invincible in raising civil war, and bearing the burdens of their offences they are impotent, I say, in following the standard of peace and truth, but bold in wickedness and falsehood. The audacious invaders therefore return to their winter quarters, determined before long again to return and plunder. And then, too, the Picts for the first time seated themselves at the extremity of the island where they afterwards continued, occasionally plundering an wasting the country.....

    We can see here that the Picts and Irish retreated back to their homes, lets say in 452 but some of the Picts stayed on in lowland Scotland. Many scholars have pondered this statement of Gildas; thinking that he meant that the Picts only just arrived in the Island and settled in the extreme north, but the reading doesn’t support this. They merely crossed the Clyde or sailed round the forth and some settled in the lowlands. Or indeed these Picts may have been Irish Picts – Cruithne, who may have settled in Argyll and western districts of upland Scotland. Gildas continues, minus the rhetoric:

During these truces, the wounds of the distressed people are healed, but another sore, still more venomous, broke out. No sooner were the ravages of the enemy checked, than the island was deluged with a most extraordinary plenty of all things, greater than was before known, and with it grew up every kind of luxury and licentiousness. But besides this vice, there arose also every other, to which human nature is liable, and in particular that hatred of truth, together with her supporters, which still at present destroys every thing good in the island etc.. Kings were anointed, not according to God's ordinance, but such as showed themselves more cruel than the rest; and soon after, they were put to death by those who had elected them, without any inquiry into their merits, but because others still more cruel were chosen to succeed them...

Here there is a time of plenty and kings fighting over kingdoms. The above problems then, with the Picts and Irish, and then the time of plenty, if we assign say ten years takes us up to the early 460's.
  1. Meanwhile, God being willing to purify his family who were infected by so deep a stain of woe, and at the hearing only of their calamities to amend them; a vague rumour suddenly as if on wings reaches the ears of all, that their inveterate foes were rapidly approaching to destroy the whole country, and to take possession of it, as of old, from one end to the other. But yet they derived no advantage from this intelligence; for, like frantic beasts, taking the bit of reason between their teeth, they abandoned the safe and narrow road, and rushed forward upon the broad downward path of vice, which leads to death. Whilst, therefore, as Solomon says, the stubborn servant is not cured by words, the fool is scourged and feels it not: a pestilential disease mortally affected the foolish people, which, without the I sword, cut off so large a number of persons, that the living were not able to bury them. ….. For a council was called to settle what was best and most expedient to be done, in order to repel such frequent and fatal irruptions and plunderings of the above-named nations.

    We are now on safer ground in dating as Gildas here mentions a plague that affected the people. This plague was also evident in Gaul as it was mentioned in records there for the years 463/4 by Gregory of Tours who was using a lost Chronicle source probably from Nantes. We can now see that after this Gildas tells us that the Saxons are invited after a council was called to decide what to do.
23. Then all the Councillors, together with that Proud Tyrant, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds-darkness desperate and cruel! Those very people whom, when absent, they dreaded more than death itself, were invited to reside, as one may say, under the selfsame roof. Foolish are the princes, as it is said, of Thafneos, giving counsel to unwise Pharaoh. A multitude of whelps came forth from the lair of this barbaric lioness, in three cyuls, as they call them, that is, in three ships of war, with their sails wafted by the wind and with omens and prophecies favourable, for it was foretold by a certain soothsayer among them, that they should occupy the country to which they were sailing three hundred years, and half of that time, a hundred and fifty years, should plunder and despoil the same. They first landed on the eastern side of the island, by the invitation of the unlucky king, and there fixed their sharp talons, apparently to fight in favour of the island, but alas! more truly against it. Their mother-land, finding her first brood thus successful, sends forth a larger company of her wolfish offspring, which sailing over, join themselves to their bastard-born comrades. From that time the germ of iniquity and the root of contention planted their poison amongst us, as we deserved, and shot forth into leaves and branches. The barbarians being thus introduced as soldiers into the island, to encounter, as they falsely said, any dangers in defence of their hospitable entertainers, obtain an allowance of provisions, which, for some time being plentifully bestowed, stopped their doggish mouths. Yet they complain that their monthly supplies are not furnished in sufficient abundance, and they industriously aggravate each occasion of quarrel, saying that unless more liberality is shown them, they will break the treaty and plunder the whole island. In a short time, they follow up their threats with deeds.

So there we have it. The Adventus Saxonum did not occur until sometime after 463/4. Interestingly someone in Ireland must have worked out this exact date as well as it was retrospectively added to the Irish annals probably in the ninth century. The Saxons first arrived in three ships, which must have been about 180 men, sent to negotiate the terms of the Feodus. These would have ascertained how many more men were needed to undertake the defences required and then more Saxons were sent for. These garrisons were then placed in the eastern parts of the Island in the traditional defensive places, the eastern seaboard, the wall and other late ex Roman defensive positions along the Foss way down to the upper Thames valley. The Saxons were happy enough for some time with their payments and provisions provided by the Romano Britons but then, probably having seen the richness of the land, soon started to squabble and cause trouble, eventually breaking out in revolt. We may as well continue the chronology as Gildas describes:
  1. For the fire of vengeance, justly kindled by former crimes, spread from sea to sea, fed by the hands of our foes in the east, and did not cease, until, destroying the neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island, and dipped its red and savage tongue in the western ocean...So that all the columns were levelled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around them on every side. Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press; and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses, or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts and birds; with reverence be it spoken for their blessed souls, if, indeed, there were many found who were carried, at that time, into the high heaven by the holy angels. So entirely had the vintage, once so fine, degenerated and become bitter, that, in the words of the prophet, there was hardly a grape or ear of corn to be seen where the husbandman had turned his back.
So The Saxons had revolted. Those in the upper Thames valley wouldn't have had to go far to reach the western Sea in their pillaging, explaining Gildas' comments, whilst the others probably pillaged the rich towns eastwards. There was nothing much further westwards of the Foss way worth pillaging.
  1. Some, therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain, which truly was the greatest favour that could be offered them: some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation. "Thou hast given us as sheep to be slaughtered, and among the Gentiles hast thou dispersed us." Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country.

    We can see here that mountains and caves are mentioned which are more a northern topographical feature than southern, although Wales would also be applicable. At this point some Britons started heading abroad for safety, probably to Ireland if in the west and north west; Armorica and Belgic Gaul amongst the Franks a bit later in the south. We are looking at the late 460's to ealry 470's if we are to date the revolt and in support of this the first evidence of Britons who fled the troubles are evident in Gaul soon after this time, one being mentioned by Sidonius Appolinaris.

    Riothamus had left in 469 from the south with 12,000 men to help the Roman emperor Anthemius with his fight against Euric the Goth. It's doubtful that the Saxons would revolt with Riothamus still in the country so we can take it that the revolt happened after this time - 471-474, with the 'unlucky' Superbus possibly being Riothamus himself (Gidlow suggests a date of 474 for the start of the rebellion which I would support). With the Superbus/Riothamus defeated perhaps the Saxons thought that their treaty was now breakable as the person who brokered it was now powerless. Surely if the Superbus had been killed by the Saxons Gildas would have been quick to mention this fateful death, but he doesn’t, to him the Superbus is merely 'unlucky', he just disappears from the narrative, much like Riothamus disappeared from Britain and was unlucky in his battle against Euric.. We return to Gildas who no longer mentions the Superbus after this point :

  2. But in the meanwhile, an opportunity happening, when these most cruel robbers were returned home, the poor remnants of our nation (to whom flocked from divers places round about our miserable countrymen as fast as bees to their hives, for fear of an ensuing storm), being strengthened by God, calling upon him with all their hearts, as the poet says,"With their unnumbered vows they burden heaven," that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were evidently adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.

So sometime in the late 470's the Saxons returned to their original garrisons in the east. Lets say 476-477. The Britons then gathered their forces under a Romanised Christian Briton called Ambrosius Aurelianus. Gildas knew of a legend that Ambrosius' parents had 'evidently' worn the purple so he was of the nobility. He challenged the Saxons, possibly from the south, as this is where most Ambrosi name associations lie, moving south eastwards, then northwards through London and onwards.

  1. After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field; to the end that our Lord might this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of the mountain of Badon when took place almost the last, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was, I am sure, forty-four years and one month having passed and also the time of my own nativity.
There then followed a period of strife with the Saxons from around 477 onwards until the time of Badon. Some evidence for this chronology comes from the Archaeology of the northern Gallic coast, which shows an hiatus of Saxon material between circa 450 and 475. Avitus had cleared the area in around 450 of the Irish and Saxons. Before 450 the Gallic archaeology was distinctly Northern Germanic, after 475 it was prodominantly Anglo Saxon (Soulat, 2009: 7). This may give some weight to Gidlow's chronology as well. What's clear is that the Anglo Saxons had not rebelled until the mid 470's.

Some scholars such as Guy Hallsall and Howard Wiseman read the 44 years as having been the period of strife from the time of Ambrosius to the time of the battle of Badon. If we accepted this we would add 44 years to 472/74 and arrive at 516-518, the date given in the Welsh annals for the Battle of Badon!! Can it be accepted though?
Bede also read it as a period before the time of Badon but instead dated it to his invention of the Saxon adventus in 449. The Welsh also appear to have read it as from the time of Ambrosius when compiling the ASC. Wiseman suggests they used Bede's Chronica Maiora which places Ambrosius in the period of the reign of the emperor Zeno (474-491). The welsh annals entry dating is between 516 and 518. This would place Ambrosius in 474 and hence Badon in 518. However in the Chronica Maiora Bede dates Ambrosius more precisely to around 485-490 (after death of vandal king Huneric in 484 and before Anastasia in 491). Did the Welsh therefore not fully understand the chronology of the Chronica Maiora or do we still need to seek the source of their date of 516-518?

Gildas continues...
  1. And yet neither to this day are the cities of our country inhabited as before, but being forsaken and overthrown, still lie desolate; our foreign wars having ceased, but our civil troubles still remaining. For as well the remembrance of such a terrible desolation of the island, as also of the unexpected recovery of the same, remained in the minds of those who were eyewitnesses of the wonderful events of both, and in regard thereof, kings, public magistrates, and private persons, with priests and clergymen, did all and every one of them live orderly according to their several vocations. But when these had departed out of this world, and a new race succeeded, who were ignorant of this troublesome time, and had only experience of the present prosperity, all the laws of truth and justice were so shaken and subverted, that not so much as a vestige or remembrance of these virtues remained among the above-named orders of men, except among a very few who, compared with the great multitude which were daily rushing headlong down to hell, are accounted so small a number, that our reverend mother, the church, scarcely beholds them, her only true children, reposing in her bosom; whose worthy lives, being a pattern to all men, and beloved of God, inasmuch as by their holy prayers, as by certain pillars and most profitable supporters, our infirmity is sustained up, that it may not utterly be broken down, I would have no one suppose I intended to reprove, if forced by the increasing multitude of offences, I have freely, aye, with anguish, not so much declared as bewailed the wickedness of those who are become servants, not only to their bellies, but also to the devil rather than to Christ, who is our blessed God, world without end.

Fifth Century Chronology

405 Saxons attacks on Britain
409 Constantine goes to Gaul with remains of Roman armies.
411 Constantine defeated, son Constans and general Gerontius slain.
414 Birth of Patrick?
415 Troubles in Armorica who take things into their own hands. (GC)
418 Armoricans return to Roman authority. Possibly same in Britain (Gildas)
419 Growth of Pelagianism in Rome, spreads westwards to Britain.
429 Germanus visits to defeat Pelagianism. (Prosper) Defeats Saxons? (Cassiodorus)
430 Patrick taken into slavery?
431 Palladius sent to Irish Christians to continue work against Pelagianism.
437 Patrick escapes and return to Britain?
441 Picts, Irish (possibly Saxons (GC) take lowland Scotland to the wall and beyond. (Gildas 19)
450 Appeal to Aetius (Gildas 20)
451 Northern territories retaken (Gildas 20). Picts settle in some of lowland Scotland. (Gildas 21)
451-463 Avitus clears the channel. Time of plenty, richness and warring kings jostling for power. (Gildas 22) Northern Germanic Saxon archaeology hiatus in northern Gaul until 475.
456 Patrick return to Ireland?
464 Plague and rumours of impending invasion from old enemies.(Gildas 22)
465 Superbus leads council in hiring Saxon Federates. (Gildas 23)
465/66 British garrison in Bourges defeated by Goths.
469/470 Riothamus leaves with 12,000 men to attack Euric.
470/471 Riothamus defeated.
474 Saxons revolt. Great slaughter, Britons leave for Ireland and Gaul. (Gildas 24, 25)
471-475 First evidence of British exiles in Gaul ( Sidonius)
475+ First Evidence of  'Anglo Saxon' archaeology in northern Gaul.
476 Saxons return to their homes in the east. (Gildas 26)
477 Britons get organised under Ambrosius Aurelianus and challenge the Saxons.
477 Ambrosius successful against Saxons (Gildas 25)
478 onwards – Continuous battles to and fro between Britons and Saxons for the next 15 years (Gildas 26)
480 Coroticus in Ireland leading Britons, Picts and Scots. (Patrick)
493 Death of Patrick
493 Decisive Battle of Badon Hill.
493 Birth of Gildas. (Gildas 26)

Soulat, J. 2009. Le matériel archéologique de type Saxon et Anglo-Saxon en Gaule Mérovingienne. Paris: Tome XX des Mémoires publiés par l’Association française d’Archéologie mérovingienne.


  1. Dane, an impressive reconstruction, and as good as any with the available sources.
    It niggles me that Gildas fails to mention any Roman withdrawal (or expulsion, depending on your point of view) from Britain after Maximus. As confused as his chronology is it is tempting to think he was writing about an earlier period. Many historians argue that Gildas misplaced the appeal to Aetius.
    As Guy Halsall has argued, Maximus could well be the superbus tyrannus who settled mercenaries in Britain in the last quarter of the fourth century following the recovery of the northern island from the Picts.

  2. Hi Frank,

    I thing Halsalls proposal that Maximus could be the Superbus is extremely far fetched. The Superbus ( more likely to be Riothamus than anyone else), would have existed in the time of Gildas's parents or grandparents so highly unlikely he would get that so wrong. Of all of Halsalls work I find this the most disappointing and it certainly spoiled his book for me which up to that point and afterwards was very good. If Halsalls archeological diagrams are correct the Romans had practically abandoned west of the Fosse Way by the late fourth century. These regions having been taken over by the Irish and Britons.I did a few years ago myself think that the Adventus Saxonum had been mixed up with the arrival of three Alemannic Kings in around 374 at the time of Maximianus PP of Gaul (who is confused with Maximus in the HB), but not even in my wildest dreams would I conjure Gildas calling Maximus Maximus and then somehow losing the plot and call him the Superbus Tyrannus. Impossible and impossible in the chronology of Gildas which clearly places the Superbus in the late fifth century not the late fourth.

  3. Dane, what is your reasoning behind Riothamus as the superbus tyrannus?

  4. Hi Frank, I have a couple of scenarios. The first is that Riothamus and the Superbus were rulers around the same time, possibly one north one south, yet Gildas tells us that the council appointed one overall leader - the Superbus. Now this appointment took place at about the same time that Riothamus must have been very powerful (460's ) as he was able to negotiate a deal with the Roman Emperor Anthemius to lend help against Euric. To do this he must have had the cooperation of the council that Gildas mentions. This is all assuming he came from southern Britain. Looking at my article on Riothamus it is clear that there is no record of him in northern Gaul before around 469/70 so he must have come from Britain. Gildas Chronology shows the Superbus was appointed around 464/5 which would be smack bank at the time of Riothamus. It is very compelling to me. Then of course there is the problem of the Superbus disappearing from Gildas' testimony. As quickly as he appears he vanishes after the Saxons revolt. Gildas calls him unlucky and it looks like Riothamus was unlucky in his battle against Euric. His army fought for a long time and if the Romans under Anthemiolus had joined with him and not been late the outcome may have been very different. The names of course could lend a little support - Riothamus -highest king / most kingly could be punned by Gildas as Superbus Tyrannus - arrogant tryant or over lord/king. Perhaps Gildas felt him arrogant because he tried to carve out an empire for himself in Gaul which it seems Tryants of Britain were wont to do. Perhaps Gildas thought of Rio in this way.