Charles Isaac Elton.

Origins of English history online

. (page 29 of 38)
Online LibraryCharles Isaac EltonOrigins of English history → online text (page 29 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

seems probable that they inhabited the wilder parts of Galloway. Mr.
Skene argues that they must have been provincials who had revolted about
the period of the great campaign of Theodosius, a.d. 364. " They only
joined the invading tribes after the latter had been for four years in possession
of the territory between the Walls : and no sooner was it again wrested
from the invaders by Theodosius than we find them enlisted in the Roman
army." Celt. Scot. i. 102. Orosius, speaking of the time of Stilicho,
about A.D. 400, calls them "barbari qui quondam in foedus recepti atque in
militiam adlecti Honoriaci voamtur." Oros. vii. 40.

Origins of English History. 339

several times been sacked, and had been built again as
soon as the enemy was forced to retire. We are told that
the Saxons were especially to be dreaded for their sudden
and well-calculated assaults. They swept the coast like
creatures of the storm, choosing the worst weather and
the most dangerous shores as inviting them to the easiest
attack. Their ships when dispersed by the Roman galleys
were re-assembled at some point left undefended, and they
began to plunder again ; and they were taught by their
fierce superstitions to secure a safe return by immolating
every tenth captive in honour of the gods of the sea.^

In the year 368 the Court at Treves was startled by the
news that the " Duke of Britain " had perished in a frontier
ambuscade, and that the Count Nectarides had been
defeated and slain in a battle on the "Saxon Shore. "^
The Picts and Attacotti, and the Scots from the Irish sea-
board, had broken through the Walls and were devastating
the Northern Provinces f the coasts nearest to Gaul were
attacked by the Franks and their neighbours the Saxons,
who were ravaging the South with fire and sword."*

Theodosius, the best general of the Empire, was sent
across to Richborough with two picked legions and a great
force of German auxiliaries. On approaching London,
"the old town then known as the Augustan Citv," he

^ " jMos est remeaturis decimum quemque captorum per sequales et
cruciarias poenas, plus ob hoc tristi quam superstitioso ritu, necare." Sidon.
ApoUin. viii. 3,

^ Ammian. Marcell. xxvii. 8; xxviii. 3.

^ The Picts were at this time divided into two nations called the
" Verturiones " and the " Dicaledonae." See as to these names, Skene,
Celt, Scot. i. 129, and Rhys, Celtic Britain, 94, 166, 313.

* " Gallicanos vero tractus Franci et Saxones iisdem confines, quo
quisque erumpere potuit terra vel mari, praedis acerbis incendiisque et
captivorum funeribus hominum violabant." Ammian, Marcell. xxvii. 9.

22 *

340 Origins of English History.

divided his army to attack the scattered troops of marauders
who were covering the country and driving off their
prisoners and stolen cattle to the coast. The spoil was
successfully recovered, and the general entered London in
triumph. Here he awaited reinforcements, finding by the
reports of spies and deserters that he had before him the
forces of "a crowd of savage nations," and being anxious
to gain time for recalling the soldiers who had deserted
to the enemy or had dispersed in search of food. At last,
by threats and persuasions, by stratagems and unforeseen
attacks, he not only recovered the lost army and dispersed
the confused masses of the enemy, but even succeeded in
regaining all the frontier districts and in restoring the
whole machinery of government.^

A few years afterwards occurred the revolt of Maximus,
a Spaniard who had served under Theodosius and had
afterwards gained the affection of the turbulent soldiery in
Britain. The Emperor Gratian had exhibited a scandalous
preference for the dress and customs of the Alani, his
barbarian allies ; and it was feared or alleged that there
was a danger of their occupying the Western Provinces.
Maximus was proclaimed Emperor in Britain in a.d, 383,
and proceeded to justify the soldiers' choice by a splendid
and successful campaign against the Picts and Scots. In
the course of the next year he raised a large army of
Britons and Gauls to supplement his regular forces, and
passing over to the mouths of the Rhine, he succeeded in
establishing himself at Treves, and was eventually acknow-
ledged as Emperor of the West.

The Britons of a later age found consolation in thinking
that the defeat of Maximus in Pannonia " at the foaming
^ Zosimus, iv. 2)S '■> Sozomen. vii. i2)-

Origins of English History. 341

waters of the Save," and the loss of the army which he
had led from their shores, were the proximate causes of
the English conquest.^ It is reasonable to suppose that
the drain of the continental war was a cause of weakness
to the province, and an inducement to the barbarians on
the frontiers to renew their attempts at conquest. It is
clear that on two occasions at least, which may be
attributed with approximate certainty to the years 396 and
400, the coasts were again attacked by the Saxons, and the
country between the Walls was occupied by Picts and
invaders from Ireland, until their power was broken by the
sword of Stilicho. " Me too," cries Britannia in the
famous poem, " me dying at my neighbours' hands, did
Stilicho defend, when the Scot moved all lerne to arms,
and Ocean whitened under the invaders' oars."^

The independence of Britain was a consequence of the
invasion of Northern Gaul by the Vandals. The commu-
nications with the body of the Empire were cut off by a
horde of these rude warriors, associated with Suevifrom the
German forests and Alani from the shores of the Euxine.
The army determined to choose their own leader : and in
the year 407, after two abortive elections, they raised a
private soldier named Constantine to the throne of the
Western Empire. His success in recovering Gaul and

^ Zosimus, iv. 35, Bede, Hist. Eccl. i, 12. "Hi sunt Britones Armorici,
et nunquam reversi sunt ad proprium solum usque in hodiernum diem.
Propter hoc Britannia occupata est ab extraneis gentibus, et cives ejus
expuisi sunt, usque dum Dominus auxilium dederit illis." Nennius, Hist.
Brit. 23 J compare Gildas, Hist. 13, 14.

^ Claudian, Tert. Cons. Hon. ^^, Prim. Cons. Stilichon. ii. 250, and Bell.
Getic. 416. For an account of the Irish in their ' Curraghs,' " emergunt
certatim de curicis," and of the Picts and Scots, " moribus ex parte dissi-
dentes, sed una eademque sanguinis fundendi aviditate Concordes/' see
Gildas, Hist. 19.

342 Origins of English History.

Spain compelled the feeble Court of Ravenna to confirm
the usurper's title : but a period of anarchy followed which
brought new dangers upon Britain and caused its final sepa-
ration from the Roman power. Gerontius, at first the friend
and afterwards the destroyer of Constantine, recalled the
barbarian hosts which had retreated beyond the Rhine, and
invited them to cross the Channel and to join in attacking
the defenceless government of Britain.^

The '' Cities of Britain," assuming in the stress of
danger the powers of independent communities, succeeded
in raising an army and repelling the German invasion.
But, having earned their safety for themselves, they now
refused to return to their old subjection, if any obedience
could indeed be claimed by the defeated usurper or
by an Emperor reigning in exile. The Roman ofiicials
were ejected and native forms of government established.
" Honorius was content to cede what he was unable to
defend, and to confirm measures which he was impotent to
repeal."^ The final separation of the province took place
in A.D. 410, when the Emperor sent letters to the Cities
bidding them provide in future for their own defence :
" and so having given gifts to the army out of the treasures
sent by Heraclian, and having gained to himself the good-
will of the soldiers there and in all parts of the world,
Honorius dwelt at ease."^

^ Zosimus, vi. 5.

" Herbert, Britannia, 27. The authorities for this period are Zosimus, vi.
4, 5, 6, 10, the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, written about a.d.
455, and a few passages of Olympiodorus preserved in the collection of

^ Zosimus, vi. 10.

OrigiJis of English History. 343



Troubles of the independent Britons — Fresh invasions of. Picts and Scots— The Saxon
Pirates — The Halleluia Victory — The appeal to Aetius — Beginnings of the English
Conquest — Character of the authorities — Early Welsh poems — Nennius — Roman-
ces of Arthur — The history of Gildas — Its dramatic nature — Its imitation of the
Vulgate — -The story of Vortigern — His war with the mercenaries — The victory of
Ambrosius — The Mons Badonicus — English accounts of the Conquest — The Anglo-
Saxon Chronicle — Influence of ancient ballads — Description of the invasion —
The three kindreds — Their continental home — Relative positions of Saxons Angles
and Jutes — Theories as to other invading tribes — The Frisians — Argument from
local names — The Conquest of Kent — Welsh traditions — Horsa's Tomb — Legends
of Hengist — The Conquest of Sussex — Destruction of Anderida — Fate of the
Roman towns— Rise of the House of Cerdic — Conquest of Wessex — Victories of
Cerdic and Cynric — The fate of Ceawlin — Genealogies of the Kings — The Con-
quest of Northumbria — Reign of Ida — -Welsh traditions — Reign of ^EUe — Of
Edwin — Of iEthelfrith — General description of the conquest — Ancient poems —
The sea-kings described by Sidonius — Their ships and crews — The lord and his
companions — Gradual degradation of the peasantry — Life in free townships —
Co-operative husbandry — Community of ownership — Village customs — Heathen
survivals — Festivals — Sacrifices — Character of English paganism — The gradual
conversion of the English kingdoms.

A FEW years proved the vanity of the success which
the Britons had gained, and extinguished their
hopes or dreams of freedom. No fire of patriotism
replaced the discipline which had saved the Province from
destruction. The Cities were unfit to endure the burden
of government, and their territories were soon seized by
the upstart kings or by pretenders affecting to continue
an imperial authority. Famine and pestilence followed
naturally on a civil war which had lapsed into a general
brigandage ; a fresh horde of Picts swarmed in between
the Walls, and new fleets from Ireland were ravaging the
Cumbrian shore.^

^ Bede, Hist. Eccl. i. 12 3 Gildas, Hist. 20.

344 Origins of English History.

The worst danger lay in the raids of the German
corsairs. The sea-kings sailed with a few ships from the
" Saxon Islands " by the Elbe, to lie off a port or run into
an unguarded estuary, ready to fall in with any larger
enterprise, to land a pirate-crew and to earn a share of the
plunder. Such were the deeds of which the fame remains
in songs of Beowulf and the wandering Hengist, of the
cruisers on the " flint-gray flood," and treasure gained by
axe and sword " over the gannet's bath and over the
whale's home."

One victorv of the Christians is recorded in the Life of
St. Germanus, who visited this country in the year 429 in
company with St. Lupus of Troyes. The incidents of the
mission were distorted into the romance of " Nennius,"
where the miracles of the Saint are interwoven with the
treacheries of Hengist and the crimes or follies of King
Vortigern ; but allusions to the " Halleluia Victory" are
found in the best contemporary literature, as in Pope
Gregory's Commentaries, in the letters of Sidonius to
St. Lupus, and in the biography of St. Germanus compiled
by the learned priest of Lyons. ^

The very celebrity of the event is a proof of the general
ill-fortune of the Britons. The two bishops had been sent

' Prosper Aquit. Chron. anno 4295 Constantius, Vita Germani. 28;
Bede, Hist. Eccl. i. 175 Usher, Primord. ZZZ'j Rees, Welsh Saints, 1223
Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, i. 17, 20. Pope Gregory alludes to the battle
in his Commentary on Job : " Ecce ! lingua Britannise . . . coepit Alleluia
sonare " : a passage which Bede by an anachronism refers to Augustine's
mission. Hist. Eccl. iii i. Sidonius appears to refer to the same battle in
a letter to St. Lupus : " Dux veterane et peritissime tubicen ad Christum
a peccatis receptui canere." Sidon. Apoll. Epist. vi. i. For the correspon-
dence of Sidonius with Constantius of Lyons, see the same collection of
letters, Epist. i. i, and vii. 18.

Origins of English History. 345

to Verulam to confute the heretics who accused " their
Maker or their making or their fate," and sought too great
a licence of Free Will. During the spring of the year
following, the missionaries resumed their enterprise and
visited the Valley of the Dee. The country was infested
by Picts and Saxons, and it was feared that they might
storm the camp where the British forces were concentrated.
The bishops of Gaul were chosen for their political capa-
cities : Germanus was accustomed to war, and was easily
persuaded to help his converts against the heathen. The
Easter Sunday was spent in baptising an army of penitents;
the orthodox soldiers were posted in an ambuscade, and
the pagans fled panic-stricken at the triple "Halleluia"
which suddenly echoed among the hills.

An annalist of doubtful authority has reported, under
the year 441, that Britain " after many troubles and mis-
fortunes was brought under the dominion of the Saxons ":^
but we can hardly date the commencement of the Con-
quest before the appeal to the Patrician Aetius or the
second visit of Germanus. The bishop returned in a.d.
447, and his biography contains not a w^ord of any such
revolution or sudden triumph of paganism. The date of
tjlie letters of appeal is fixed by the form of their address :
" The groans of the Britons to Aetius for the third time
Consul. The savages drive us to the sea and the sea
casts us back upon the savages : so arise two kinds of
death, and we are either drowned or slaughtered." The
Third Consulate of Aetius fell in a.d. 446, a year memor-
able in the West as the beginning of a profound calm

^ Prosper Tiro inakes this statement, under the head of the loth jear
of TheodosiuSj in his continuation of the Chronicle of Prosper of

34^ Origins of English History.

which preceded the onslaught of Attila. The complaint
of Britain has left no trace in the poems which celebrated
the year of repose ; and our Chronicles are at any rate
wrong when they attribute its rejection to the stress of a
war with the Huns.^ It is possible, therefore, that the
appeal was never made, and that the story represents
nothing but a rumour current in the days of Gildas among
the British exiles in Armorica.

Of the Conquest itself no accurate narrative remains.
The version usually received is based in part on the state-
ments in the histories of Gildas and Nennius, and in part
upon Chronicles, apparently based upon lost poems in
which the exploits of the English chieftains were com-

The Welsh poems throw little light on the matter. The
bards were for the most part content to trace the dim out-
lines of disaster, and to indicate by an allusion the issue of
a fatal battle or the end of some celebrated warrior. Their
poems, in the form at any rate in which they have de-
scended to our times, are too obscure to be useful for the
purposes of history. Here and there one may recognise
an episode of the ravages of " the Flame-bearer," or a
picture of Ida, or " Ulf at the ford." We admire, without
localising the incidents, the elegies on "the cold Hall of
Kynddylan " or the graves which " the rain bedews and
the thicket covers," or the red and dappled chargers of
the brave Geraint. Aneurin's great epic itself is wanting
in all precision of detail. It is the history of a long war
of races, compressed under the similitude of a battle into

1 Gildas, Hist. 20 ; Bede, Hist. Eccl. i. 13. Seethe poem of Merobaudes
on the Third Consulate of Aetius, Carm. v. 5, 8, and Sidon. Apoll. Carm.
i. 192,

Origins of English History. 347

a few days of ruin, like the last fight in' the Voluspa, " an
axe-age, a sword-age, and shields shall be cloven, a storm-
age, a wolf-age, ere the World sinks."

The British historians were hardly more explicit. The
collection of Welsh and Anglian legends which passes
under the name of ' Nennius ' contains a few important
facts about Northumbria, mixed up in confusion with gene-
alogies, and miracles, and fragments of romance. Here,
too, we get the list of the twelve battles of Arthur, with
their Welsh names " which were many hundred years ago
unknown": " but who Arthur was," to use Milton's words,
"and whether anv such reigned in Britain hath been
doubted heretofore and may again with good reason : for
the Monk of Malmesbury, and others whose credit hath
swayed most with the learned sort, we may well perceive to
have known no more of this Arthur nor of his doings than
we now living, and what they had to say transcribed out
of Nennius, a very trivial writer, ... or out of a Britith
book, the same which he of Monmouth set forth, utterly
unknown to the world till more than six hundred years
after the days of Arthur."^ We shall therefore say but
little of the doings of the Blameless King who "thrust the
heathen from the Roman Wall, and shook him through
the North." His existence is admitted, though the scene
of his doubtful exploits is variously laid at Caerleon, in the
Vale of Somerset, in the Lowlands of Scotland and in the
Cumbrian Hills ; it seems to be true that he engaged in a

1 The whole account of Arthur in the Third Book of Milton's History-
should be compared with the traditions in "Nennius" and the modern
interpretations collected by Mr. Skene in the " Four Ancient Books of
Wales." "Hie est Arthur de quo Britonum nugae hodieque delirant;
dignus plane quem non fallaces somniarcnt fabulae, sed veraces praedica-
rent historiae." Will. Malmesb. Gesta. i. 8.

348 Origins of English History.

war with the Angles in Northumbria ; but his glory is
mainly due to the Breton romances, which were amplified
in Wales, and afterwards adopted at the Court of the
Plantagenets as the foundation of the epic of chivalry.

Gildas is a more important witness. Writing in the
middle of the sixth century he may be taken as represent-
ing the opinions of men who might themselves have taken
part in the war. But he himself made no pretence to
anything like historial accuracy. "If there were any
records of my country," he said, " they were burned in the
fires of the conquest or carried away on the ships of the
exiles, so that I can only follow the dark and fragmentary
tale that was told me beyond the sea." No lamentation
was ever keener in note, or more obscure in its story, than
the book in which he recounted "the victorv and the
crimes of Britain, the coming of a last enemy more dread-
ful than the first, the destruction of the Cities, and the
fortunes of the remnant that escaped."^

The purport of his work becomes plainer as we perceive
that it is intended for a dramatic description of an episode
in the history of Cumbria. It is the story of " the Victory
of Ambrosius," told in the language of the Prophet who
told of " the burden of Egypt" ; for another Egypt seemed
to have been lost by the men who should have been
" the stay of her tribes."

The drama begins in the year 450, when the Emperor
Marcian reigned in the East and Valentinian the Third in

1 Gildas, Hist. 4. The passages following in the text are taken from
the five concluding chapters of his History. His account should be
compared with Bede's version of the story, Hist. Eccl. i. 15, and with
those contained in the Chronicle of Ethelwerd and the History of Henry
of Huntingdon.

Origins of English History. 349

the West. " The time was approaching when the iniquity
of Britain should be fulfilled." The rumour flew among
the people that their old invaders were preparing a final
assault: a pestilence brooded over the land and left
more dead than the living could bury ; and the complaint
is swollen by invectives against the stubbornness of
''Pharaoh" and the brutishness of the "Princes of Zoan."
We are brought to the chamber of Vortigern and his
nobles, debating what means of escape might be found.
" Then the eyes of the proud king and of all his coun-
cillors were darkened, and this help or this death-blow
they devised, to let into our island the foes of God and
man, the fierce Saxons whose name is accursed, as it were
a wolf into the sheep-cotes, to beat off the nations of the

The men came over from " Old Anglia " with three
" keels," or ships of war, loaded with arms and stores.
Their first success was followed by the engagement of a
larger force of mercenaries ; but a quarrel soon arose
about their pay, which grew into a general mutiny. Their
allowance, says Gildas, was found for a long time, and so
" the dog's mouth was stopped," as he cites the native
proverb : " but afterwards they picked a quarrel, and
threatened to plunder the island unless a greater liberality
were shown." The historian denounces them in a mystical
and fervid strain: they are "young lions " wasting the land,
and whelps from the lair of the "German Lioness ": and
their settlement in Northumbria is described, in the words
of the Prophet, as the wild- vine that "brought forth
branches and shot forth sprigs," the root of bitterness and
the plant of iniquity.

The enemy is next likened to a consuming fire as he

350 Origins of English History.

burst from his new home in the East and ravaged the
island as far as the Western Sea : and the Chronicler
describes with a horrible minuteness the sack of some
Cumbrian city and the destruction of the faithful found
therein. " And some of the miserable remnant were
caught in the hills and slaughtered, and others were worn
out with hunger and yielded to a lifelong slavery. Some
passed across the sea, with lamentations instead of the
sailor's song, chanting as the wind filled their sails, ' Lord !
Thou hast given us like sheep appointed for meat, and
hast scattered us among the heathen' : but others trusted
their lives to the clefts of the mountains, to the forests and
the rocks of the sea, and |so abode in their country though
sore afraid."^

But after some time, when the Angles had returned
to their settlements, " a remnant of the Britons was
strengthened under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelius,
•the courteous and faithful, the brave and true, the last
of the Romans left alive in the shock of the storm."
His kindred, some of whom had worn the purple of office,
had all perished in the fray ; " and now," says Gildas,
"his offspring at this J day, degenerate as they are from
those ancestral virtues, still gather strength and provoke
their conquerors to arms, and now by the favour of heaven
have gained a victory in fanswer to their prayers." '' So,

^ The principal migrations to Brittany took place in the years 500 and
513. In the first of these years St. Samson of Dol is said to have been
driven from his bishopric in York. Many curious documents relating to
the Britons of the migration v*^ill be found in the Breton Chartularies of
the Abbeys of Redon and Landevennec in the National Library in Paris.
Extracts will be found in the Appendices to the Histories of Brittany by
Halleguen and De Coursons.

Origins of English History. 351

after the coming of Ambrosius," he continues, " sometimes
our citizens and sometimes the enemy prevailed until the
year of the Siege of Mount Badon, the last and not the
least of our blows against those brigands ; and this is now
the beginning of the 44th year, and one month already
gone, since the year of the Siege, in which too I myself was
born ; yet not even at this day are our cities inhabited
again, but they lie deserted and overthrown ; for though
foreign wars have ceased, our civil wars go on. The
remembrance of that utter destruction, and that salvation
beyond all hope, remained in the minds of those who
had seen these marvellous things ; and so the kings and
the churchmen and men of every station were each
obedient to the rules that befitted their degree. But when
they were all dead, and a generation came which knew not
the tempest, but only the fair weather that now prevails, all
laws of Truth and Justice were so shattered and up-torn,
that not a trace or even a remembrance remains of them in
all those ranks of men, excepting a few, a very few com-
pared with that great multitude which day by day is
rushing headlong into Hell."

The battle of Mount Badon appears to have secured a

Online LibraryCharles Isaac EltonOrigins of English history → online text (page 29 of 38)