The Departure of the Legions

EngliscHeritage

The Departure of the Legions & the Coming of the Anglo-Saxons

 

THE DEPARTURE OF THE LEGIONS FROM BRITAIN

 

I began this little volume by giving some account of the coming of the Romans to Britain; and now, having described the chief Roman remains that are to be seen in our island, and having given, incidentally, some idea of the history of events during the hey-day of Britain`s connection with Rome, I will bring the book to a close by relating the story of the last phases of this great epoch. The tale is a confusing one, and, I fear, will not be of great interest to the general reader; yet the following outline cannot well be omitted, especially as our history books generally state simply that the Roman legions were withdrawn about 410 A. D., which, as will be seen, hardly gives a true idea of what really happened.

 

Between the years 364 and 369 A. D., that is to say, some three and a quarter centuries after the conquest of Britain in the reign of the Emperor Claudius, the island was assailed on all sides by barbarian peoples, and had to fight desperately not only to maintain itself as an integral part of the Roman Empire, but even to preserve the very existence of the British race.

The fierce tribes north of Hadrian`s Wall had formed some sort of alliance with the Scots of North Ireland, and were breaking into the region now known as Cumberland/Cumbria and Northumberland; other Irish tribes seems to have been raiding the shores of Wales; and the Saxons, who for many years now had made plundering expeditions to our shores, were attacking the whole coast-line of east and south Britain from Norfolk right round to Kent and Sussex. In 368, the Roman General in the north, a Frenchman named Bulchobaudes, was ambushed and presumably killed; and just about the same time Nectaridus, who was in command on “the Saxon Shore,” was defeated and killed by the Germanic raiders.

 

A state of panic ensued throughout the country, and everywhere the Roman troops fled from the danger zones into the interior, where the towns-people of the various centres began feverishly to build walls around their cities, in anticipation of invasion. Many of the Roman walls know known, such as those of London, were built at about this time; and a great many hoards of coins found throughout the country appear to date from this anxious age, the people having buried their money when leaving their homes in panic.

 

The news was speedily carried to the Emperor Valentinian, who happened to be in France, and soon he had sent his most capable general, Theodosius, a Spaniard by birth, to Britain with large reinforcements of Batavians and Herulians, and the Palatine regiments known as the Jovii and the Victores. Theodosius made Rutupiae (Richborough Castle) in Kent his base, and from this fortress he marched towards London, which was practically in a state of siege, capturing or driving off as he went the various bands of Saxons raiders who had penetrated inland from the coast, and at last entering the metropolis in triumph and being hailed as its deliverer.

 

Then, in the Spring of 369 he began a great sweeping movement throughout Britain, clearing the coasts, rounding up roving groups of Germanic raiders, who were terrorising the countryside miles/kms back from the sea, and finally driving out the northern invaders who had now swarmed over the Wall and had advanced into the heart of the country. Having reorganized the British Fleet, he chased the Irish plunderers back to their own shores, and attacked and destroyed the Saxon bases in the Orkneys and elsewhere; and it is interesting to notice that in these operations one of the most important naval forces used by him was that known as the Barcarii Tigrisienses, or “Bargemen of the Tigris,” which had been transferred to these grey northern seas from Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, and were now based on some port near Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

 

Thus, having cleared the country of its enemies, Theodosius went back to the Continent; but a few years later, in 376,he was disgraced and executed in Carthage, leaving a son, however, who ultimately became the famous Emperor Theodosius the Great.

 

In 383 a Spanish officer named Magnus Clemens Maximus, who held a high command in Britain, was proclaimed Emperor by the troops in our island, in opposition to Gratian, who had succeeded Valentinian as Emperor of the western half of the Roman dominions. Maximus at once crossed to France, taking with him some of the legions and a large force of British auxiliaries. He defeated Gratian, who was shortly afterwards murdered at Lyons, and thereafter set out on a hectic career, which ended in his defeat at the hands of Theodosius the Great, and death in 388. Meanwhile, I may mention, he had rewarded his British troops by giving them lands in Armorica, the later Brittany, and the blood of these British colonists persists there to this day, while much of it came back to England in the persons of the Duke of Normandy`s soldiers , in 1066.

 

The removal of troops from Britain led to a new outbreak of raids by Irish Scots, Picts, and Saxons, and it would seem that the famous Irish King Naill of the Nine Hostages, from whom so many families of the present day claim descent, was the leader of some of these marauding expeditions. To meet this danger the danger the Roman general, Flavius Stilicho, who was by birth a Vandal, came to Britain; and so successful were his operations that the poet Claudianus makes Britannia exclaim: “I was perishing at the hands of the neighbouring people; for the Scots brought all Ireland against me, and the sea foamed under his accursed oarstrokes; but now, I fear no more the Scottish javelins, I tremble not at the Picts, I no longer gaze forth along my whole coast-line. Dreading with every shift of the wind to see the Saxons coming! To Stilicho I owe it; he has fortified me!”

 

In 401 Stilicho was obliged to withdraw the Sixth Legion from Britain to meet the menace of the Goths against Rome itself, and it may be that the Twentieth Legion, stationed at Chester, was also transferred to the Continent, after having been in this island for over three and a half centuries. In western Britain, meanwhile, the Roman-British general, Cunedda, cleared Wales of Irish marauders, and Niall of the Nine Hostages was defeated killed about 405.

 

In 408 Stilicho suffered the fate of Theodosius, and was beheaded, and in 409 and 410 the Goths sacked Rome, Europe becoming henceforth for many years the scene of most confusing fighting.

 

Meanwhile, following a plot hatched at Silchester, the army in Britain had proclaimed a soldier named Constantinus as Emperor, and this man took further troops from Britain to support him on the Continent, sending a British born general, Gerontius (Geriant) to secure Spain, which task he successfully accomplished.

In 410, Honorus, the rival Emperor, sent his famous message to the British, stating that he could supply them with no further troops, and that they must rely on themselves in the defence of their country against their enemies.

 

Constantinus, meanwhile, was unable to help them, and having thus appeaered to neglect their interests, they were not sorry when, in 411, he was defeated and executed by another upstart soldier, a Pannonian named Constantius.

 

Constantius seems to have sent back to Britain some of the troops removed from it, and this to have suppressed the various raids on our island which once more had broken out. About 423, however, after the death of Constantius, troops were again withdrawn, and on their departure further invasions occurred. Yet, in 429, when St. Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, visited Britain he seems to have found the country fairly prosperous and wealthy, and holding its own against its many enemies.

In the previous year (if the dating proposed by Foord be correct), a document was drawn up, entitled the Notitia Dignitatum, which gave a list of the fortress-garrisons and troops in Britain at that time, and, fortunately, this was survived in part, so that we have a very fair idea of the distribution of Roman troops in this age, and we can see, incidentally, what an extraordinary mixture of nationalities these forces represented.

 

Between 430 and 440, however, further withdrawls of these troops took place, and in 442 the Saxons obtained possession of land on the east and south coasts; yet, in 447, when St. Germanus again visited our island, conditions were happy enough, at any rate in the Midlands, and the raiders were kept at bay. The country was still an integral part of the Roman Empire and though that Empire was itself split into an eastern and a western division, and both were falling to pieces, though in the struggles between, the different mushroom Emperors all the legions serving in Britain had now been sent to the Continent, only auxiliary forces being left, the British nation was still loyal to Rome, and was still in touch with it.

Thus matters stood in 450 and in the next chapter I will tell the story of the collapse of the Roman-British government and of the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

 

THE ANLO-SAXON INVASION OF BRITAIN

 

In the last chapter I brought the history of Roman Britain down to the year 450 A. D., and showed how at that time the British had temporarily shaken themselves free of their invaders, and, in spite of the fact that the legions had been withdrawn, were maintaining their Roman habits of life in some security. The main trouble, however, was that there was no longer any central government to hold the country together, and unity of action between the different cities or states was difficult to enforce. Most of the western states loosely recognized the authority of a very dissipated personage named Vortigern, who was probably a Romanised Briton of South-Welsh stock, but the east and south favoured his rival, Aurelius Ambrosius, who, on the contrary, was a Britonised Roman; and at length a quarrel broke out between these two leaders, in which Ambrosius was killed.

 

Vortigern, being a westerner, was perhaps, a little hazy about the affairs of the eastern side of Britain, and, about the year 451 or 452 he rather casually enlisted the military services of the brothers Hengist and Horsa, two English adventurers from across the North Sea, and assigned the Isle of Thanet to them and to their little band of soldiers of fortune in return for their help in defending the south and east coasts against possible invaders. Shortly afterwards he fell in love with Hengist`s daughter and married her; and thereafter; no doubt, he allowed more licence to her father than he would otherwise have done. But these mercenaries soon realized that Britain was a very much more comfortable place to live in than their own country, which at that time was in imminent danger of invasion by the feared Huns; and soon they were joined by so many more of their compatriots that Thanet would not hold them, and, while Vortigern, their employer, was away in the west, they picked a quarrel with the British inhabitants of Kent and swarmed into that county.

 

A pitched battle was fought at Aylesford, in the valley of the Medway between Maidstone and Chatham, the leaders of the Roman-British army being Vortigern and Categirn, the two sons of Vortigern, and in this indecisive engagement Categirn was killed on the one side and Horsa on the other. Hengist, however, had had enough for the time being, and went back to the continent; and shortly afterwards Vortimer died, asking with his last breath to be buried on the shore of the sea over which his enemies had retreated.

 

In 455 all Europe was shaken by the news of the sack of Rome, this time by the Vandals (but we must remember that they were Christians themselves so were unlikely to sack Rome); but Britain still held out as a Roman state. At about this period Hengist returned with a new army of adventurers, and a meeting was arranged between his chief men and those of Vortigern; but the meeting ended in a free fight, believed by some to have been a treacherous attack by the English upon the unarmed British delegates; and as a result of this Hengest forced from his son-in-law Vortigern, at the sword`s point, the lease of a wide area of land in Kent and Sussex. Here he ruled as a sort of king for many years, attacking and defeating the British in 465 and again in 473; and meanwhile other Germanic raiders, under a chieftain named Aella, had invaded Wessex and had settled there, while yet others had taken possession of most of the coast as far north as Yorkshire. All the forts along what was called “the Saxon Shore” fell before the invaders, and in the case of Pevensey the entire garrison was put to the sword.

 

On the death of Vortigern the chief power in Britain passed into the hands of Ambrosius Aurelianus, of the rival house, who managed to check any further in roads of the heathen invaders into the rich and Christian lands of Roman Britain. He seems to have died soon after 490, and the next great Roman British ruler of whom we hear is Artorius, the King Arthur of our legends. Under his leadership twelve battles were fought against the Saxons, and the last of these, which took place about 500 A. D., in an unidentified district called Mons Badonis, or Mount Badon, resulted in so complete a victory for the Roman-British that the invaders were driven back to the coasts and for half a century Britain was more or less at peace.

 

Next we hear of Aurelius Caninus, who has the chief personage in the island about 545 A. D., and was probably a descendant of the Aurelius Ambrosius mentioned above, who had been killed about a hundred year before; and lastly we read of a British leader named Condidan, who may well have been Aurelius Condidanus. In his time the Germanic hordes were coming over the North Sea in ever increasing numbers and were continually pushing inland: in fact a definite emigration of almost the entire nation of Angles or English from the Continent to our shores was taking place; and it fell to the lot of Candidanus to defend the gradually shrinking territory of Romanised Britain against the invasion.

 

The end came in 582, when the advancing English met the desperate Britons in battle at Dirham, a little village some ten miles/16km east of Bristol and about the same distance north of Bath, and utterly defeated them, Candidanus and two other Roman-British leaders being killed. On Hinton`s Hill, near this village, you may stil see the earthworks of the defenders` camp, and the place might well be the goal of a pious pilgrimage; for here the last remnants of Rome in Britain died gloriously in their vain attempt to defend this severed member of the fallen Roman Empire, and all that was left to it of Roman ideals and Roman civilization from the inrush of a then heathen and untutored nation from over the seas.

 

As a result of this battle, Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester at once fell, and soon the Anglo-Saxon had swarmed over the whole country, with the exception of mountainous Wales and isolated Cornwall, where, to this day, the descendants of the three original tribes of those parts, the Silures, the Ordovices, and the Dumnonii, inhabit the land. It is, however, absolutely erroneous to suppose that the invaders exterminated the other tribes of the Roman-British. The conquerors were a rough lot, it is true, but every good Englishman will protest with me that they were not the massacreing savages our school-books used to describe to us. The British tribes were much depleted it is true, and the survivors were reduced to the position of serfs in most parts of the country; but as late as the middle of the seventh century there was a free British kngdom in the neighbourhood of Leeds (Sherburn-in-Elmet), and another for a short time at York (Cair Ebrauc), while throughout the west and south-west of England, if not in the east and south-east, the British may well have been almost as numerous as their Anglo-Saxon masters, especially after the latter began to fight amongst themselves.

 

It was but fifteen years later, in 597, that St. Augustine came to Canterbury and restored the Christian churches left by the Romans, and in 601 he was made primate of all England. Gradually the Anglo-Saxons became Christians, and it may well be that the missionaries who converted them were aided by the fact that Christianity had never been wiped out amongst the enslaved British. At any rate, in 664 A. D., a great synod was held, to dicuss whether the Christian observances as then used in Rome or those as used traditionally in Britain (which originally had come from Rome) should be maintained.

 

This was a great revival of Latin literature in the following century, and this, too, may have been aided by the fact that that tongue had never ceased to be spoken by the conquered Britons. Many of the cities were deserted, it is true, but others, such as London, continued their existence; and even in the case of many of those which were abandoned, enough of the inhabitants remained in the neighbourhood to hand on the local names unchanged to the present day. (Glev (um) is Gloucester, Venta is Win-chester, Lind(um) Colonia is Lin-coln, Vict(is) is (the Isle of) Wight, Reculb(ium) is Reculver, Leman (is) is Lymne or Lympne, Dubr(is) is Dover, Cataract (onium) is Catterick: and so forth. The only one of the fortresses of the Saxon Shore which lost its name was that of Anderida, now called Pevensey; and that particular fortress in which we are told the garrison was massacred. This preservation of Roman-British place-names would not have been possible if the Roman-British people had been annihilated or driven away to other parts.

 

It used to be argued that since Anglo-Saxon (i.e. English) became the language of the country, and since it has in it very few British words, therefore the English must have exterminated the British. The fact is, however, that very soon the English conquerors began to intermarry with the better class British, but most of these latter spoke Latin, and thus a certain number of Latin words came into the Anglo-Saxon tongue. Several British words also crept in – words connected with domestic things, such as `crock`, from which comes `crockery`; `mug`, a cup; `prop`, a support of the hut; `hassock`, a footstool; `taper`, a candle; `curds`, of milk; `cub`, a whelp; `ribbon`, and many others. Mothers and nurses retained a few old British words in speaking to the children: to `skip` for instance, or to `toss` a ball, or to have `fun`; and the very word “mother” is closer to the British `mathair` than it is to the Anglo-Saxon `modar`.

 

The case is parallel with that of Egypt. In the Seventh Century the Arabs conquered Egypt, and imposed their language on the majority of the inhabitants of the country, only a handful of Egyptian words being retained; yet the Egyptians were neither exterminated nor even greatly reduced in numbers. Again, over a large part of Ireland and the English language became the only tongue; yet the Irish people were not exterminated.

 

We today are the progeny of the inter-marriages between the Anglo-Saxons and Britons, and the Britons at the time of these inter-marriages had a great deal of the heterogeneous Roman blood in their veins. Thus, when we call ourselves Englishmen, we should mean that we are the descendants of the conquering Anglo-Saxons, whose wild blood, however, has been tempered, so to speak, by being blended with the blood of the Roman-British, and later with that of the Danes and Normans, the latter being partly descended from the British who had gone to Brittany at the end of the fourth century.

 

The modern Englishman differs from his ancient English ancestors and from his Teutonic kinsmen by this happy circumstance that in his veins, amongst many different strains, there also runs the glorious blodd of Britons and Roman.

 

CONCLUSION

 

With this chapter I must bring my little book to a close, for I have not just now any leisure left to continue these wanderings in Roman Britain, which have held me enthralled through just a hundred summer days. There are many sites about which I have not written, and many I have not visited; for, as I have tried to demonstrate, our country is full of Roman remains, and it would take years to prepare a record of them all. In conclusion I must say a few words in regard to the proper treatment of these remains.

In the first place, we have to remember that every nation is the steward to all mankind of the relics of its past history, and hence that it is our duty to bestir ourselves so as to hand down in exemplary manner to future generations all that the past has placed in our keeping. In the case of Britain this is particularly important, for the members of the British Empire have a place in the affairs of the world more influential than that of any other body of people.

 

Moreover, we stand for a traditional ideal of integrity and humanity which in a restless sea of difficulties and changes remains, I firmly believe, the one solid rock whereon the waves beat in vain; and it behoves us to understand how that rock has been built up little by little throughout the ages. But the antiquities in our possession – the inscriptions, the ancient documents, the ruins, and all the objects which reveal our past civilization – are, as it were, the open book wherein we can learn by what process this ideal has been developed. They provide the means whereby we ourselves may realise and may make manifest to others the eternal nature of the material on which our national faith is founded.

 

In examining the beginnings of our history we enquire into the destiny of our race, for, as Sir John Seeley has said, “I tell you that when you study history, you study not the past of England but her future. It is the welfare of your country, it is your whole interest in citizens, that is in question when you study history.

 

But that history has to be pieced together from a mass of fragments, and we have to ask ourselves, therefore, what steps we are taking to reconstruct the story of our country out of the material which Time had left us. We have to search our hearts, and enquire how goes the day for Britain in the fight between Memory and Oblivion. I am sorry to say that in spite of a very general interest in the subject, our stewardship of our antiquities has been deplorable.

 

I cannot tell you how many splendid relics of the Roman age in this country have been destroyed during the last two or three centuries, either wilfully or by carelessness or by ignorance. I have heard of scores of beautiful mosaic floors of Roman-British houses, perfect when found, of which not one trace now remains. I have heard of hoards of coins- and there are more such hoards in Britain than in any other country in the Roman world- which have been found and scattered and lost again without any written record being made of them. I have heard of ancient monuments which have been smashed to pieces to provide material for mending the roads; I have heard of ancient roads, paved by the Romans, hacked up and utterly obliterated to provide stone for the building of walls; I have heard of walls constructed by the legions pulled down to make room for modern monuments.

 

Many a Roman ruin in the country has been disinterred in search of loot and not in search of knowledge; many a site has been excavated by well-meaning but inexperienced amateurs, who have lost more information in the process than they discovered; and many another, carefully dug out, has been left exposed to the scant mercy of weeds and weather. In places where new houses have had to be built on ancient ground, the Roman ruins have often been swept out of the way like so much rubbish, without any record being made; and in fields where the plough has turned up the relics of that age, the objects discovered have been thrown away, time after time, and no word been said about them. Often the walls of great Roman fortresses have been left to fall to pieces without a finger being raised to save them, as at Burgh Castle, near Yarmouth; and often the well-preserved ruins of Roman mansions have been allowed to disappear, as at Carisbrooke. In many cases the archaeologist who has obtained permission to excavate a site has been obliged to promise immediately to replace the earth over the ruins, so that there shall be no loss to the owner in potatoes or cabbages or whatever his crop may be. Sometimes, of two ills, the excavator has chosen to cover his finds with earth again, as at Silchester, where a whole city has been reburied, rather than to leave, as at Folkestone or Lichfield, or to become overgrown with destructive weeds and grass as at Wroxeter, Ribchester, and elsewhere.

 

From many sites the objects found have been removed to museums entirely unfit for their reception, where, in dusty cases, amidst moth-eaten stuffed birds and mouldering curios from the South Seas, they have lain untended and uncared for, and the very place of their origin has been forgotten.

 

What is the cause of this appalling carelessness? The interest is there, keen and lively, when it is aroused; the common sense, surely, is there which tells us that any antiquity detached from the objects found with it and lacking a careful record of how and where it was discovered, had lost its main value; the money for the excavation or preservation of a site is generally there if the need of it is explained. Only the organisation, the direction and the incentive are lacking.

 

We want the patriotic endowment of scholarships and professorships for the training of field workers and students in practical archaeology; we need the endowment of sites already excavated, so that they may be tended and cared for; we require generous gifts of money made to recognised societies so that scientific work can be carried out. We want an extension of the powers of the Office of Works so that it can co-operate with landowners in the preservation of ancient remains on behalf of the nation; and we need to arouse the interest of civic, municipal and rural councils, in the value, commercial or educational, of ruins as public show-places, and in the importance of keeping detailed records of all that is found.

 

But, above all, we want the propagation amongst our people of that sense of the patriotic usefullness of our ancient records which can only be engendered by the realization of their deep significance to us, and their bearing upon our national character and its interpretation.

 

These things tells us the story of the origin of our intsitutions; they show us that for which our forefathers have striven; they give us the solid background against which we may play out parts in the world of today. Every scrap of broken pottery, every building-stone, every coin, every trinket, if properly studied in regard to its place of origin, is a sentence in the glorious story of Britain, and serves to construct the tale of the gradual development of the British ideal.

 

In these chapters I have tried to emphasis the uncontrovertible but little appreciated fact that the blood of the heterogeneous Romans still runs on our veins, because I have wanted to make stronger that bond between us and them which shall excite our sense of filial duty, arouse our family pride, so to speak, and encourage us to filfill our stewardship, even when it costs us a little time and trouble. But always before my eyes, as I went from one ruin to ruin of Britain`s past, there has shone like fiery sunrise the glory of England today and the splendour of the future of the British Empire, if only we can keep inviolate the traditions and the ideals of our race, the foundation of which is rooted in our early records, and the solidarity of which is best brought home to our minds by the study of our age-old history.

 

That history has to be re-written. We must rid our minds of the picture of barbaric ancient Britons, clad in skins and using stone weapons, capering on the sea-shore when the Romans arrived; and we must understand that our civilisation is at least two thousand years older than that. We must forget the false picture of Britons as slaves of the Romans and must realize that Britons and Romans together contributed to the splendour of our land as a part of the Roman Empire. We must no longer think of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers as savages from Germany who exterminated the Roman-British population; but we must think of them as a conquering people who ultimately intermarried with the race they had vanquished, so that we today have the blood of both in our veins.

 

Thus we shall appreciated the long continuity of our island story, and we shall see how British, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon institutions, habits, and physical and mental characteristics have gradually combined to produce the men of our race of the present day; and, realising the glories from which we have come, we shall turn our eyes with the more confidence to the greater splendours of character and world-wide usefulness towards which we are moving.