wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Adrian Goldsworthy

The Fall of the West

Britain broke up into many separate communities. It was not simply a reversion to the old tribes pre-dating Roman rule. Too much time had passed for these to have great meaning and, instead, the administrative states created by the Romans had more significance. Even so, the powers that would emerge did not follow these boundaries very precisely. Instead, new states or kingdoms were created. Most, if not all, were ruled by kings—or tyrants, as Gildas and other sources tend to dub them. They may not have been the only authorities, and some civic leaders seem to have continued to exist, but such warlords were undoubtedly stronger than any other powers to emerge. Central imperial power had gone and in its place anyone capable of controlling enough force, influence and wealth was able to carve out a kingdom.

A source written in Gaul in the middle of the fifth century talks of Britain being 'devastated by a Saxon invasion in 410. There is no archaeological evidence for this attack, but then the same is true of most barbarian raids on Britain and other parts of the empire. Certainly, settlement by Saxons or other north German peoples in early fifth-century Britain seems to have been limited to a few small communities in the south-east. These may as easily have been mercenaries brought in by British leaders—or before that by the imperial authorities—as settlers who seized territory by force. The example of Alaric's Goths shows that the same group could easily appear in both guises over the course of just a few years. The attacks in 410 were most likely heavy raids and need not have involved huge numbers of warriors or any attempt at permanent occupation. Some might prefer to date the attacks earlier and associate them with the ones that are supposed to have provoked the rebellion against Constantine. Alternatively, Saxon attacks may have become heavier to exploit the weakness in Britain following the expulsion of the imperial authorities.

Saxon raids posed a problem, especially to those communities in vulnerable areas. The same was true of plundering bands of Picts, Scots and Irish. All were likely to have been quite small-scale, especially when the attackers came by sea. Roman rule in Britain was not ended by outside attacks, nor were the British powers that emerged rapidly overrun by these foreign enemies. There is some sign of the Britons organising to combat their foes, especially on Hadrian's Wall where several forts were reoccupied in the fifth century. Sometimes the evidence of activity is slight, but at Birdoswald a large timber hall was built on the foundations of the Roman granary. Someone also repaired the defences at Housesteads, although in earth rather than stone. At the very least this suggests local war leaders with warbands were based in partially restored former army bases. One scholar would even see this as the sign that a leader emerged able to revive something of the old military command of the Dux Britanniarium, albeit doubtless on a more modest scale.

Britain's kings and warlords most likely fought each other as often as foreign enemies—the Romans had no monopoly on civil war—and the fragmentation of the provinces into many small kingdoms does not suggest harmony. Like the emperors, it would be surprising if they did nor employ barbarians as allies or mercenaries to fight against their neighbours and rivals. For at least a few decades it was British leaders who remained in control throughout the old Roman diocese. No light was switched off, immediately extinguishing all aspects of culture and life from the Roman period. Most cities and towns continued to be occupied, as did many villas. Some substantial buildings were built within the old walls of towns, even if they were invariably of timber construction. Systems to supply water remained in use for most of the fifth century in at least one case being repaired. Some baths continued to function, but in general these were one of the first things to decay and be abandoned both in cities and at villas. Very soon no one had the skill or wealth to maintain such sophisticated pieces of engineering, let alone build new ones. There were also more mundane changes. It quickly became rare to use pottery that was not made locally, and before long the potters ceased producing wheel-turned pottery.

Some things survived, but that is not to say that the changes were not major and fairly rapid—certainly within a generation—even if they were not instant. Life in Britain became less sophisticated, with few signs of prosperity comparable to the Roman period. The wealthiest were cushioned to some extent, and it was easier for them to leave and settle in Brittany, but their comforts were fewer both there and in Britain itself. Western Britain, notably Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria, had been amongst the least developed parts of the Roman province. Paradoxically this may have changed in the century or so after Roman rule, with these areas becoming a little more 'Roman' and almost certainly more thoroughly Christian. There is no good evidence for a substantial pagan community in Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries before the creation of the Saxon kingdoms.

Britain was not cut off from all contact with the Roman empires after 410. Trade declined massively, and it was no longer part of the imperial bureaucratic and fiscal systems, but as far as both Romans and Britons were concerned it remained part of the Roman world. The church played a key role in maintaining this connection. Bishop Germanus of Auxerre in Gaul was later canonised and his biographer recorded two visits to Britain, the first in 429 and the second sometime in the next fifteen years. Travel to Britain was evidently still possible and not excessively dangerous. Nevertheless, it is hard to judge how much the biographer really knew of life on the island. Germanus seems to have visited St Albans (Verulamium) and went to the shrine of its famous martyr. In one city he healed the blind daughter of a local dignitary, called a tribune, but whether this was the corre€ct tide is questionable. He also rallied the locals to defeat a band of Saxons and Picts—in itself a fairly unlikely combination—teaching his men to raise a shout of 'Alleluia!' This is said
to have been enough to rout the enemy.

Yet the main reason for both visits was to combat heretical Christians rather than foreign plunderers. Germanus held debates with priests adhering to a doctrine named Pelagianism after its founder. Pelagius was originally from Britain, although his preaching mainly attracted attention after he moved to Italy in 380. His particular brand of asceticism was moderate by the standard of the day, but his emphasis on the ability of individuals to become virtuous through effort and make themselves acceptable to God was far more controversial. Over time he attracted many prominent critics, including St Augustine, who accused him of effectively denying that salvation depended on grace alone. Pelagius was finally condemned as a heretic in 418. Germanus' biographer claims that the bishop easily confounded the British Pelagians in debate. He also characterises them as boastful and ostentatiously dressed, but this may just be conventional criticism. It is hard to say whether it can be used to show that there were substantial numbers of wealthy aristocrats and
priests in the British towns.