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Part 3: Arthurian Britain by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.

The Dark Ages
From the time that the Romans more or less abandoned Britain, to the arrival of Augustine at Kent to convert the Saxons, the period has been known as the Dark Ages. Written evidence concerning the period is scanty, but we do know that the most significant events were the gradual division of Britain into a Brythonic west, a Teutonic east and a Gaelic north; the formation of the Welsh, English and Scottish nations; and the conversion of much of the west to Christianity.

By 4l0, Britain had become self-governing in three parts, the North (which already included people of mixed British and Angle stock); the West (including Britons, Irish, and Angles); and the South East (mainly Angles). With the departure of the Roman legions, the old enemies began their onslaughts upon the native Britons once more. The Picts and Scots to the north and west (the Scots coming in from Ireland had not yet made their homes in what was to become later known as Scotland), and the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes to the south and east.

The two centuries that followed the collapse of Roman Britain happen to be among the worst recorded times in British history, certainly the most obscure. Three main sources for our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon permeation of Britain come from the 6th century monk Gildas, the 8th century historian Bede, and the 9th century historian Nennius. From them, and from archeological evidence, it seems that the Anglo-Saxon domination of Britain took place in two distinct phases. I have hesitated to use Bede's term of "Conquest" for sound reasons.

One analogous situation with events in Britain as recorded by its English historians can be found by looking at the history of Israel. Recent archeological discoveries in the troubled land have cast into doubt the veracity of the Biblical accounts of the conquest of Canaan. Let's face it, history is written by the victors anxious to boast of their triumphs, to magnify their successes, and to denigrate the enemy. The Israelite bards and scribes certainly telescoped the events of the gradual subjugation of the Canaanite kingdoms, transforming what modern archaeologists have recognized as a gradual recrystallization of settled life into a great literary epic of conquest.

Referring to Israel, but in general terms, Neil Silberman wrote: "Archeology's real contribution has been, and will continue to be, the recognition that our biblical heritage is drawn from a complex mosaic of cultures, ideologies, and economies, and that some of our most profound spiritual and cultural traditions were forged in the vibrant diversity of the ancient Near Eastern world." As far as British history is concerned, we find English historians, especially Bede, doing the same thing as the biblical scribes. No matter how reliable an historian, Bede's bitter prejudice against the native Britons was honed by his religious beliefs and his praise of the English peoples' successes in colonizing the island of Britain.

Bede (672-735) spent his life at Jarrow, in Northumbria. In many ways a trustworthy historian, he was also a theologian. Acting as a bard of his own tribe in Northumbria, hIs intense hostility made him a partisan witness when he wrote of the British people, for they had retained a form of Roman Christianity which was anathema to him. He called members of the Celtic Church "barbarians," " a rustic, perfidious race," and is thus regarded by many modern historians (but especially Welsh writers) as a "fancy monger" especially for his account of the year of 708 that has been slavishly followed by countless generations of English historians throughout the centuries with nary a question. Nor do Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth escape censure, certainly not the writers of the English Chronicle., all of whom subscribe to the notion that the British people were driven out of their homelands into Wales and Cornwall as a result of a catastrophic event known as "the Anglo-Saxon conquest."

The heritage of the British people cannot simply be called Anglo-Saxon; it is based on such a mixture as took place in the Holy Land, that complex mosaic of cultures, ideologies and economies. The Celts were not driven out of what came to be known as England. More than one modern historian has pointed out that such an extraordinary success as an Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain "by bands of bold adventurers" could hardly have passed without notice by the historians of the Roman Empire, yet only Prosper Tyro and Procopius notice this great event, and only in terms that are not always consistent with the received accounts.

In the Gallic Chronicle of 452, Tyro had written that the Britons in 443 were reduced "in dicionen Saxonum" (under the jurisdiction of the English). He used the Roman term Saxons for all the English-speaking peoples resident in Britain: it comes from the Welsh appellation Saeson ). The Roman historians had been using the term to describe all the continental folk who had been directing their activities towards the eastern and southern coasts of Britain from as early as the 3rd Century. By the mid 6th Century, these peoples were calling themselves Angles and Frisians , and not Saxons.

In the account given by Procopius in the middle of the 6th Century (the Gothic War, Book 1V, cap 20), he writes of the island of Britain being possessed by three very populous nations: the Angili, the Frisians, and the Britons.. "And so numerous are these nations that every year, great numbers . . . migrate thence to the Franks . . ." There is no suggestion here that these peoples existed in a state of warfare or enmity, nor that the British people had been vanquished or made to flee westwards. We have to assume, therefore, that the Gallic Chronicle of 452 refers only to a small part of Britain, and that it does not signify conquest by the Saxons. According to a recent study, the Institute of Molecular Biology, Oxford (reported in Realm, March/April, 1999) has established a common DNA going back to the end of the last Ice Age which is shared by 99 percent from a sample of 6,000 British people, confirming that successive invasions of Saxons, Angles and Jutes (and Danes and Normans) did little to change that make-up.

Thus we have to agree with Professors John Davies and A.W. Wade-Evans that the Saxons did not sweep away the entire population of the areas they overran. The myth was especially promulgated by 19th century historians in their attempts to stress the essential teutonic nature of the English people, and their attempts to disassociate what they considered to be the politically mature, emotionally stable, enlightened English from their unreliable, untrustworthy Welsh, Scottish and Irish neighbors who apparently shared none of the former's redeeming characteristics.

It was not only Bede of course, who contributed to the confusion concerning the momentous events of the years 400 to 600, for the most influential document written during the period was that of the monk Gildas written about 540: De Excidio Britanniae (Concerning the Fall of Britain). Here, in some 25, 000 words, Gildas gives us a sermon that pours scorn on his contemporaries, the kings of Britain. He tells us that the coming of the Saxons was an act of God to punish the native Britons for their sins. As we discover from reading Gildas, there is a great lack of reliable written evidence from the period, and we have to turn to literature to inform ourselves of its important events, literature written before Bede's prejudiced history. Much of this literature was produced in what is now Scotland.

The Britons of the North produced two great poets Taliesin and Aneirin, both of whom lived in the area now known as Strathclyde in Scotland, but whose language is recognizable as Old Welsh Their poems are part of the heroic tradition that praise the warrior king and his brave followers in their constant battles against the Germanic invaders.. They also celebrate honor in defeat. Taliesin's poetry praises the ideal ruler who protects his people by bravery and ferocity in battle but who is mangnanimous and generous in peace. Aneirin is best remembered for Y Gododdin, commemorating the feats of a small band of warriors who fought the Angles at Catraeth and who were willing to die for their overlord. the poem is the first to mention Arthur, described as a paragon of virtue and bravery. In the Annales Cambriae, drawn up at St.David's in Wales around 960, Arthur is recorded as having been victorious at the Battle of Badon in 5l6 against the Saxons.

Another collection of stories collected around 830 that relate the events of the age is the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) ascribed to Nennius. Arthur is also mentioned, as is Brutus, described as the ancestor of the Welsh. Perhaps the most authentic of the early Arthurian references is the entry for 537 in the Annales that briefly refers to the Battle of Camlan in which Arthur and Medrawd were killed. Prose accounts of the enigmatic British leader are entirely tales of fancy. It was not until the highly imaginative works of Geoffrey of Monmouth (1090-1155) that the Arthurian romances provided the basis for a whole new and impressive tradition of European literature.

It is the coming of Christianity, however, that overshadows the literary achievements of the age. In most of lowland Britain, Latin had become the language of administration and education, especially since Celtic writing was virtually unknown. Latin was also the language of the Church in Rome. The old Celtic gods had given way to the new ones such as Mithras introduced by the Roman mercenaries; they were again replaced when missionaries from Gaul introduced Christianity to the islands. By 3l4, an organized Christian Church seems to have been established in most of Britain, for in that year British bishops were summoned to the Council of Arles. By the end of the fourth century, a diocesan structure had been set up, many districts having come under the pastoral care of a bishop.

In the meantime, however, missionaries of the Gospel had been active in the south and east of the land that later became known as Scotland (It was not until the late tenth Century that the name Scotia ceased to be applied to Ireland and become transferred to southwestern Scotland) The first of these was Ninian who probably built his first church (Candida Casa: White House ) at Whithorn in Galloway, ministering from there as a traveling bishop and being buried there after his death in 397 A.D. For many centuries his tomb remained a place of pilgrimage, including visits from kings and queens of Scotland.

It was during the time of the Saxon invasions, in that relatively unscathed western peninsular that later took the name Wales, that the first monasteries were established (the words Wales and Welsh were used by the Germanic invaders to refer to Romanized Britons). They spread rapidly to Ireland from where missionaries returned to those parts of Britain that were not under the Roman Bishops' jurisdiction, mainly the Northwest.. Though preceded by St Oran, who established churches in Iona, Mull and Tiree, Columba was the most important of these missionaries, later becoming a popular saint in the history of the Christian Church, but even he built the nave of his first monastery facing west and not east. For his efforts at reforming the Church, he was excommunicated by Rome. His banishment from Ireland became Scotland's gain.

The island of Iona is just off the western coast of Argyll, in present-day Scotland. It is been called the Isle of Dreams or Isle of Druids. It was here that Columba (Columcille '"Dove of the Church" ) with his small band of Irish monks landed in 563 A.D. to spread the faith, and it was here that the missionary saint inaugurated Aidan as king of the new territory of Dalriata (previously settled by men from Columba's own Ulster). Iona was quickly to become the ecclesiastical head of the Celtic Church in the whole of Britain as well as a major political center. After the monastic settlement at Iona gave sanctuary to the exiled Oswald early in the seventh century, the king invited the monks to come to his restored kingdom of Northumbria. It was thus that Aidan, with his twelve disciples, came to Lindisfarne, destined with Iona to become one of the great cultural centers of the early Christian world.

In 574, Columba is believed to have returned to Ireland to plead the cause of the bards, about to be expelled as trouble-makers. According to legend, he sensibly argued that their expulsion would deprive the country of an irreplaceable wealth of folklore and antiquity. He also refused to chop down the ancient, sacred oak trees that symbolized the old druidic religion. Although the bards were allowed to remain, they were forced to give up their special privileges as priests of the old religion ( Some modern writers, such as Robert Graves have seen the old traditions underlying much Celtic literature throughout the long. long years since the 6th century).

In this period, the 5th and 6th Centuries, numerous Celtic saints were adopted by the rapidly expanding Church. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, however, the Celtic Church, with its own ideas about the consecration of its Bishops, tonsure of its monks, dates for the celebration of Easter and other differences with Rome, was more or less forced by majority opinion of the British bishops to accept the rule of St.Peter, introduced by Augustine, rather than of St.Columba. From this date on, we can no longer speak of a Celtic Church as distinct from that of Rome. By the end of the seventh century we can also begin to speak of an Anglo-Saxon political entity in the island of Britain, and the formation and growth of various English kingdoms.

Resource Information

Part 4: Anglo Saxon England





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