Post-Roman Britain

An Introduction

Map of Roman Britain, 410
Map of Roman Britain, 410, from the Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. Public Domain

In response to a request for military assistance in 410, Emperor Honorius told the British people they would have to defend themselves. The occupation of Britain by Roman forces had come to an end.

The next 200 years are the least well-documented in the recorded history of Britain. Historians must turn to archaeological finds to glean an understanding of life in this time period; but unfortunately, without documentary evidence to provide names, dates, and the details of political events, the discoveries can only offer a general, and theoretical, picture.

Still, by piecing together archaeological evidence, documents from the continent, monument inscriptions, and the few contemporary chronicles such as the works of Saint Patrick and Gildas, scholars have gained a general understanding of the time period as set forth here.

The Map of Roman Britain in 410 shown here is available in a larger version.

The People of Post-Roman Britain

The inhabitants of Britain were at this time somewhat Romanized, especially in urban centers; but by blood and by tradition they were primarily Celtic. Under the Romans, local chieftains had played an active role in the government of the territory, and some of these leaders took up the reigns now that the Roman officials were gone. Nevertheless, cities began to deteriorate, and the population of the entire island may have declined, in spite of the fact that immigrants from the continent were settling along the east coast.

Most of these new inhabitants were from Germanic tribes; the one most often mentioned is Saxon.

Religion in Post-Roman Britain

The Germanic newcomers worshipped pagan gods, but because Christianity had become the favored religion in the empire in the preceding century, most Britons were Christian. However, many British Christians followed the teachings of their fellow Briton Pelagius, whose views on original sin were condemned by the Church in 416, and whose brand of Christianity was therefore considered heretical.

In 429, Saint Germanus of Auxerre visited Britain to preach the accepted version of Christianity to the followers of Pelagius. (This is one of the few events for which scholars have corroborating documentary evidence from records on the continent.) His arguments were well-received, and he is even believed to have helped fend off an attack by Saxons and Picts.

Life in Post-Roman Britain

The official withdrawal of Roman protection did not mean that Britain immediately succumbed to invaders. Somehow, the threat in 410 was kept at bay. Whether this was because some Roman soldiers stayed behind or the Britons themselves took up arms is undetermined.

Nor did the British economy collapse. Although no new coinage was issued in Britain, coins stayed in circulation for at least a century (though they were ultimately debased); at the same time, barter became more common, and a mixture of the two characterized 5th-century trade. Tin mining appears to have continued through the post-Roman era, possibly with little or no interruption. Salt production also continued for some time, as did metal-working, leather-working, weaving, and the production of jewelry. Luxury goods were even imported from the continent -- an activity that actually increased in the late fifth century.

The hill-forts that had originated centuries before show archaeological evidence of occupancy in the fifth and sixth centuries, suggesting they were used to evade and hold off invading tribes. Post-Roman Britons are believed to have built timber halls, which would not have withstood the centuries as well as the stone structures of the Roman period, but which would have been habitable and even comfortable when they were first constructed. Villas remained inhabited, at least for a while, and were run by wealthier or more powerful individuals and their servants, be they slave or free. Tenant farmers also worked the land to survive.

Life in Post-Roman Britain couldn't have been easy and carefree, but the Romano-British way of life survived, and the Britons flourished with it.

Continued on page two: British Leadership.

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British Leadership

If there had been any remnants of centralized government in the wake of the Roman withdrawal, it rapidly dissolved into rival factions. Then, in about 425, one leader achieved enough control to declare himself "High King of Britain": Vortigern. Although Vortigern did not govern the entire territory, he did defend against invasion, particularly against attacks by Scots and Picts from the north.

According to the sixth-century chronicler Gildas, Vortigern invited Saxon warriors to help him fight the northern invaders, in return for which he granted them land in what is today Sussex. Later sources would identify the leaders of these warriors as the brothers Hengist and Horsa. Hiring Barbarian mercenaries was a common Roman imperial practice, as was paying them with land; but Vortigern was remembered bitterly for making a significant Saxon presence in England possible. The Saxons rebelled in the early 440s, eventually killing Vortigern's son and exacting more land from the British leader.

Instability and Conflict

Archaeological evidence indicates that fairly frequent military actions occurred across England over the rest of the fifth century. Gildas, who was born at the end of this period, reports that a series of battles took place between the native Britons and the Saxons, whom he calls "a race hateful both to God and men." The successes of the invaders pushed some of the Britons west "to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas" (in present-day Wales and Cornwall); others "passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations" (to present-day Brittany in western France).

It is Gildas who named Ambrosius Aurelianus, a military commander of Roman extraction, as leading a resistance against the Germanic warriors, and seeing some success. He does not provide a date, but he does give the reader some sense that at least a few years of strife against the Saxons had passed since the defeat of Vortigern before Aurelianus began his fight.

Most historians place his activity from about 455 to the 480s.

A Legendary Battle

Both the Britons and the Saxons had their share of triumphs and tragedies, until the British victory at the Battle of Mount Badon (Mons Badonicus), a.k.a. Badon Hill (sometimes translated as "Bath-hill"), which Gildas states took place in the year of his birth. Unfortunately, there is no record of the writer's birth date, so estimates of this battle have ranged from as early as the 480s to as late as 516 (as recorded centuries later in the Annales Cambriae). Most scholars agree it occurred close to the year 500.

There is also no scholarly consensus for where the battle took place, since there was no Badon Hill in Britain in the following centuries. And, while many theories have been put forward as to the identity of the commanders, there is no information in contemporary or even near-contemporary sources to corroborate these theories. Some scholars have speculated that Ambrosius Aurelianus led the Britons, and this is indeed possible; but if it were true, it would require a reconfiguration of the dates of his activity, or an acceptance of an exceptionally long military career. And Gildas, whose work is the sole written source for Aurelianus as commander of the Britons, does not name him explicitly, or even refer to him vaguely, as the victor at Mount Badon.

A Short Peace

The Battle of Mount Badon is important because it marked the end of the conflict of the late fifth century, and ushered in an era of relative peace. It is during this time -- the mid-6th century -- that Gildas wrote the work that gives scholars most of the details they have about the late fifth century: the De Excidio Britanniae ("On the Ruin of Britain").

In the De Excidio Britanniae, Gildas told of the past troubles of the Britons and acknowledged the current peace they enjoyed. He also took his fellow Britons to task for cowardice, foolishness, corruption, and civil unrest. There is no hint in his writings of the fresh Saxon invasions that awaited Britain in the last half of the sixth century, other than, perhaps, a general sense of doom brought on by his bewailing of the latest generation of know-nothings and do-nothings.

Continued on page three: The Age of Arthur?

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The Age of Arthur?

Most scholars who have investigated the possibility of a "historical King Arthur" believe that if he existed, he probably lived in the late fifth and early sixth century. According to the Historia Brittonum ("History of the Britons") by the Welsh chronicler Nennius, Arthur fought -- and won -- twelve battles in the late fifth century, culminating in the Battle of Badon Hill. The Annales Cambriae also credits Arthur with the victory at Badon, and adds that he died at the Battle of Camlann 21 years later.

If these sources are accurate, then Arthur was at least partly responsible for the peace that Gildas enjoyed. The timing fits for him to have been the son of Ambrosius Aurelianus -- or, if the dates of Aurelianus' activity are later than most scholars believe, Arthur and Aurelianus could be one and the same. Who's to say he didn't have an advisor named Merlin, or something like it, and a beautiful queen with a name that might sound something like Guinevere?

Unfortunately for hopeful Arthurian scholars, there are notable problems with the sources.

  • Nennius wrote, at the earliest, in the late eighth century. This is three hundred years after the events he covered. A great deal of misinformation, folklore, and legend can build up over the course of three centuries -- think of some of the urban legends from the last decade alone that, though false, just won't go away.
  • The battles named by Nennius have no dates, and scholars have been unable to identify any of the locations with any certainty. The skeptic may wonder if these 12 battles were at all factual, or whether they represent an apocryphal number, either fabricated by Nennius or risen through the evolving legend of the intervening centuries.
  • The Historia Brittonum has so many versions and later interpolations that scholars cannot determine if the segment on Arthur was actually written by Nennius or inserted by a later author.
  • The Annales Cambriae, an intriguing Welsh timeline, was written at least half a century after the Historia Brittonum and was compiled from other sources, the identity of which are not indicated in the work itself. Most scholars of the subject believe that the Historia Brittonum was one of those sources; if so, then the Annales Cambriae is only as credible as the earlier work on which it was based.
  • Arthur is not the only individual that the Annales Cambriae mentions whose historicity is suspect (St. Brigid is considered by some scholars to be a historicization of an ancient Celtic goddess). While the scholar should not dismiss all its contents, neither should he take it for incontrovertible proof.

If Arthur or Ambrosius Aurelianus did not win the Battle of Mount Badon and stop the advance of the Saxons, then who did? We are left with an enticing mystery, and a historical chasm that the creative author can fill with any fiction he desires, but that the conscientious historian can only explain in dry, colorless expressions of uncertainty.

The Anglo-Saxon Conquest

In a sense, the "Anglo-Saxon Conquest" began almost as soon as the Romans withdrew and was a long, slow, fitful process that lasted into the early 7th century. There was no single leader or group of leaders spearheading the invasion, and no organization among the various tribes and settlements. It consisted not of one massive invasion force, but of dozens of small war-bands and numerous smaller family groups, who migrated to the island in search of farmland and hunting grounds and were willing to fight for it if necessary.

The "Conquest" may not even have truly been interrupted by peace in the 6th century; migrations appear to have continued, although they may not have been as frequent or as large in the number of settlers.

The peace that Britain enjoyed came to an end sometime around 550, when Germanic warriors renewed their attacks on the British and pushed them westward again. What exactly prompted this fresh activity is anyone's guess. By the end of the sixth century, England had come almost completely under the control of these Germanic people, and those Britons who did not choose to emigrate to Brittany in France or to take refuge in the mountains of Wales and Cornwall settled into their lives under Germanic rulers.

The Invaders

For the sake of convenience, historians often refer to the invaders from the continent as Saxons.

In reality, members of several different Germanic tribes made the journey to Britain: Jutes from Denmark, Franks from Gaul, Frisians from the Netherlands and northwestern Germany, and Angles from Norway, among others. The Angles gave their name to England (Angle-Land) and English and, together with the most active contingent of newcomers, are remembered in the label for the era that followed Post-Roman Britain: Anglo-Saxon England.

Think you know your early British history? Test yourself in the Post-Roman Britain Quiz.

Sources and Suggested Reading

An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400-600
by Christopher A. Snyder
A thorough and thoughtful examination of documentary and archaeological evidence is followed by a well-reasoned theory of life in post-Roman Britain.


by Peter Hunter Blair
Solid investigation of the time period includes a look at some of the historiographical problems of studying the topic.


by C. Warren Hollister
Straightforward general overview of England from the first Roman incursions to 1399.