British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

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Interesting Events in Early British History



Famine in the Land - AD c.440

In "De Excidio Britanniae" (On the Ruin of Britain), written about the year 540, the monk, Gildas, refers to famine and civil war in Britain, but gives us no dates other than to say that it happened after the departure of the Romans. Gildas' brief was to write a spiritual diatribe against the evils that he saw in society in his day and not to give us an annal of fifth century events. More's the pity, as he is the only contemporary Briton whose writings still survive.

The civil war that Gildas refers to probably occurred just after an effort was made by the British to expel the invaders from their country. The gaze of the Britons would've been outward and, at such times, unity comes easily. From what we know of the tensions of those days, though, the greatest pressures probably came from the religious feuding between the Pelagians and the supporters of Rome, and from the differences of opinion over the decision to employ Saxon mercenaries to defend the land against the Picts and the Irish. These pressures could have split apart the two opposing factions within the ruling council, causing a dispute that ended in a civil war. It is even possible that because the Saxons were invited to occupy the eastern lands along the coast, the British inhabitants of those areas may have relocated to other areas, farther west, where the Roman factions were firmly in control.

A best guess would put the likeliest time for civil strife ten or so years before the Saxons were invited to the island, or c.440. While we don't know the extent of the damage caused by the civil war or, indeed, if any physical damage was caused at all. We know there was a time of great famine, but that may have been caused by the displacement of populations, rather than by civil military actions.

Gildas does give us some useful information that must be fit into our picture of the fifth century, though, but exactly where to fit it is uncertain. He does tell us of Ambrosius Aurelianus, that he was the a gentleman, the last of the Romans, and the man to whom the Britons flocked for leadership. His father was said to have "worn the purple." This could be an allusion to an emperor, somewhere in his background or perhaps the expression "wearing the purple" was an idiomatic reference to someone who occupied the position of leader of the Roman faction within the ruling council of Britain.

In the same passage, Gildas tells us of the back and forth struggling against the Saxons, with the Britons sometimes the victors and sometimes the other side. All this, he says, "lasted right up till the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least." His chief omission in all this is that he doesn't tell us the name of the commander of the British forces. Or, maybe he already told us the hero's name earlier in the passage. . .Ambrosius Aurelianus, and we are so conditioned to thinking about Arthur, that we can't accept a direct statement of fact from Gilidas.

For sure, he never mentions the name of Arthur. Wouldn't he have done so if he knew it? After all, he only lived forty-four years after the great and decisive battle. Surely the name of the heroic British commander would've been a household word in those days. In fact, the only name he does mention in this time period, is Ambrosius. Suggestive? To be sure, but how significant? We'll probably never know.


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