Ruin and Conquest
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The Ruin and Conquest of Britain 400 A.D. - 600 A.D.

A Reconstruction by Howard Wiseman.
(Reprinted with permission)


The historical era began in Britain with the Roman conquest in the first century A.D. From then until the present the darkest age is that of the 5th and 6th centuries. It is dark because of the general decline in the level of civilization e.g. the loss of coinage and manufactured pottery, the reversion to timber buildings etc. But even more so it is dark because of our ignorance of even the most crucial historical events. This is not because of the lack of contemporary writing; we have a greater quantity of first-hand observation (due especially to the 6th century monk Gildas) from this era than from some of the preceding Roman centuries. But Gildas was not a historian and his long-winded sermon contains relatively little useful information. Also, far more "happened" in the politics of the fifth and sixth century, with numerous battles between the Britons and the invading Anglo-Saxons and Scots, than during the relatively uneventful Pax Romana. Thus there is a great deal of uncertainty in the history of this era; not even the broad features are agreed upon by all historians, and historians who do agree on the veracity of certain events may assign them dates which vary by more than a generation.

Given this uncertainty, I cannot pretend that the version of the history I have given here is significantly more likely to be correct than other reconstructions. The chief virtue of my version is that it is told using only the primary sources. That is to say, I have attempted to arrange excerpts from various sources (more than 30 in number) in a rough chronological order so as to tell a surprisingly coherent story. In doing this I have almost always maintained the implied ordering of events in the original sources (something which is often not respected) and, where possible, the original dates. However, I have sometimes omitted material which is in contradiction with material from other sources. Dealing with such contradictions is of course a matter for judgement, and is one reason for the diversity of views on the outline of British history in this period. In some important cases I have discussed my reasoning in footnotes.

Some of the sources I use are available elsewhere on the web. However many are not, and in any case they have not, to my knowledge, been arranged in this way so as to tell a story. Of course the material in the sources is of variable quality. That of Gildas, mentioned above, is presumably quite reliable for his time, but becomes less reliable for events occurring before his birth. Other authors wrote many centuries after the events they describe. Such sources are much less reliable, and may include some entirely fictional elements (the "History" of Geoffrey of Monmouth is an extreme example of this; it has not been used by me at all). Where I have included very dubious elements (e.g. from the Mabinogion), this is only to give a tradition (which may conceivably have some basis in fact) which grew from an event which is otherwise recorded in more reliable histories.

A historian would be well justified in calling my reconstruction a story, rather than a history. Nevertheless, I think it is a fascinating story, for it tells how Britain south of Hadrian's wall was transformed from a Roman diocese into the medieval kingdoms of England and Wales. Among the people that appear are Arthur, battle-leader of the Britons, Cerdic, traditional founder of the English Royal family, and many others.

In order to keep the history to a manageable size I have deliberately concentrated on the political history of what had been Roman Britain; that is, of that part of the Island south of Hadrian's wall. Some events in Ireland and north of the wall are mentioned, but most only in so far as they affected the history of Britain. By contrast, I have covered some events in 5th century Gaul in greater detail than might be expected. This is because they either have direct relevance to the history of Britain, or act as models for the military and social conditions there. Another difference from other reconstructions is that I have used British (Welsh) and English sources with roughly equal weight. The result is I think a balanced portrait, in which, for instance, Arthur is seen to have a role roughly comparable with Aelle, the contemporaneous leader of the English south of the Humber. That the battles of either are recorded is fortunate; other people are simply names to us. Lastly, ecclesiastical history receives only minimal attention from me; its sources for the 5th and 6th century probably outweigh all of those I have presented here.

To supplement the excerpts from the sources I have occasionally inserted brief comments, clarifications or corrections which are implied by the same or other sources but which are not worth quoting in themselves. Such additions are indicated in small type. Where the extra information is uncertain, this has been indicated in an obvious manner. As well as these additions, I have added a large number of footnotes. As mentioned above, these contains some of the reasoning behind my reconstruction, and also links together passages in different places to help the reader keep track of personalities and lineages. For those who wish to skip the primary sources, I have compiled a separate summary. Also, in another file I have made tables of the sources used, speculative lifetimes of some of the characters (and their descendants in the 7th century), and the estimated sizes of armies in this period. I have also added a page which outlines how much we really know about the history of this period.

Content Last Modified: 21st March 1999.


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