Tag: Briton

The Picts

Romano Saxon Cavalry vs Picts 5th C. AD

The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

They are thought to have been ethnolinguistically Celtic. Where they lived and what their culture was like can be inferred from the geographical distribution of brochs, Brittonic place name elements, and Pictish stones. Picts are attested to in written records from before the Roman conquest of Britain to the 10th century, when they are thought to have merged with the Gaels. They lived to the north of the rivers Forth and Clyde, and spoke the now-extinct Pictish language, which is thought to have been closely related to the Celtic Brittonic language spoken by the Britons who lived to the south of them.

Picts are assumed to have been the descendants of the Caledonii and other tribes that were mentioned by Roman historians or on the world map of Ptolemy. Pictland, also called Pictavia by some sources, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Alba then expanded, absorbing the Brittonic kingdom of Strathclyde and Northumbrian Lothian, and by the 11th century the Pictish identity had been subsumed into the “Scots” amalgamation of peoples.

Dál Riata

Pictish society was typical of many Iron Age societies in northern Europe, having “wide connections and parallels” with neighbouring groups. Archaeology gives some impression of the society of the Picts. While very little in the way of Pictish writing has survived, Pictish history since the late 6th century is known from a variety of sources, including Bede‘s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, saints’ lives such as that of Columba by Adomnán, and various Irish annals.

Map of Britain from withdrawal of the Roman Empire in 410 until the ascension of Anglo-Saxon rule in 450AD.

What the Picts called themselves is unknown. The Latin word Picti first occurs in a panegyric written by Eumenius in AD 297 and is taken to mean “painted or tattooed people” (from Latin pingere “to paint”; pictus, “painted”, cf. Greek “πυκτίς” pyktis, “picture”). As Sally M. Foster noted, “Much ink has been spilt over what the ancient writers meant by Picts, but it seems to be a generic term for people living north of the Forth–Clyde isthmus who raided the Roman Empire.”

Illustration of a warrior, blue tattoos on his chest, and holding a small shield.

Their Old English name gave the modern Scots form Pechts and the Welsh word Ffichti. In writings from Ireland, the name Cruthin, Cruthini, Cruthni, Cruithni or Cruithini (Modern Irish: Cruithne) was used to refer both to the Picts and to another group of people who lived alongside the Ulaid in eastern Ulster. It is generally accepted that this is derived from *Qritani, which is the Goidelic/Q-Celtic version of the Britonnic/P-Celtic *Pritani. From this came Britanni, the Roman name for those now called the Britons. It has been suggested that Cruthin referred to all Britons not conquered by the Romans—those who lived outside Roman Britannia, north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall

A Pictish confederation was formed in Late Antiquity from a number of tribes—how and why is not known. Some scholars have speculated that it was partly in response to the growth of the Roman Empire.

Pictland had previously been described by Roman writers and geographers as the home of the Caledonii. These Romans also used other names to refer to tribes living in that area, including Verturiones, Taexali and Venicones. But they may have heard these other names only second- or third-hand, from speakers of Brittonic or Gaulish languages, who may have used different names for the same group or groups.

Pictish recorded history begins in the Dark Ages. At that time, the Gaels of Dál Riata controlled what is now Argyll, as part of a kingdom straddling the sea between Britain and Ireland. The Angles of Bernicia, which merged with Deira to form Northumbria, overwhelmed the adjacent British kingdoms, and for much of the 7th century Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom in Britain.

The Picts were probably tributary to Northumbria until the reign of Bridei mac Beli, when, in 685, the Anglians suffered a defeat at the Battle of Dun Nechtain that halted their northward expansion. The Northumbrians continued to dominate southern Scotland for the remainder of the Pictish period.

Dál Riata was subject to the Pictish king Óengus mac Fergusa during his reign (729–761), and though it had its own kings beginning in the 760s, does not appear to have recovered its political independence from the Picts. A later Pictish king, Caustantín mac Fergusa (793–820), placed his son Domnall on the throne of Dál Riata (811–835). Pictish attempts to achieve a similar dominance over the Britons of Alt Clut (Dumbarton) were not successful.

The figure of the Old Testament King David shown killing a lion on the St Andrews Sarcophagus is thought to represent King Óengus. The figure is dressed as a Roman emperor of Late Antiquity and wears a fibula like that of the Emperor Justinian on the mosaic at San Vitale, Ravenna.

The Viking Age brought great changes in Britain and Ireland, no less in Scotland than elsewhere, conquering and settling the islands and various mainland areas, including Caithness, Sutherland and Galloway. In the middle of the 9th century Ketil Flatnose is said to have founded the Kingdom of the Isles, governing many of these territories, and by the end of that century the Vikings had destroyed the Kingdom of Northumbria, greatly weakened the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and founded the Kingdom of York.

In a major battle in 839, the Vikings killed the King of Fortriu, Eógan mac Óengusa, the King of Dál Riata Áed mac Boanta, and many others. In the aftermath, in the 840s, Cínaed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) became king of the Picts.

During the reign of Cínaed’s grandson, Caustantín mac Áeda (900–943), outsiders began to refer to the region as the Kingdom of Alba rather than the Kingdom of the Picts, but it is not known whether this was because a new kingdom was established or Alba was simply a closer approximation of the Pictish name for the Picts.

Constantín mac Áeda; Modern Gaelic: Còiseam mac Aoidh, known in most modern regnal lists as Constantine II; died 952.

However, though the Pictish language did not disappear suddenly, a process of Gaelicisation (which may have begun generations earlier) was clearly underway during the reigns of Caustantín and his successors. By a certain point, probably during the 11th century, all the inhabitants of northern Alba had become fully Gaelicised Scots, and Pictish identity was forgotten. Later, the idea of Picts as a tribe was revived in myth and legend.

Pictish Kings and Kingdoms

Approximate location of Pictish kingdoms, based on the information given here.

The early history of Pictland is unclear. In later periods multiple kings existed, ruling over separate kingdoms, with one king, sometimes two, more or less dominating their lesser neighbours. De Situ Albanie, a late document, the Pictish Chronicle, the Duan Albanach, along with Irish legends, have been used to argue the existence of seven Pictish kingdoms. These are as follows; those in bold are known to have had kings, or are otherwise attested in the Pictish period:

More small kingdoms may have existed. Some evidence suggests that a Pictish kingdom also existed in Orkney. De Situ Albanie is not the most reliable of sources, and the number of kingdoms, one for each of the seven sons of Cruithne, the eponymous founder of the Picts, may well be grounds enough for disbelief. Regardless of the exact number of kingdoms and their names, the Pictish nation was not a united one.

For most of Pictish recorded history the kingdom of Fortriu appears dominant, so much so that king of Fortriu and king of the Picts may mean one and the same thing in the annals. This was previously thought to lie in the area around Perth and southern Strathearn; however, recent work has convinced those working in the field that Moray (a name referring to a very much larger area in the High Middle Ages than the county of Moray) was the core of Fortriu.

Map showing the approximate areas of the kingdom of Fortriu and neighbours c. 800, and the kingdom of Alba c. 900.

The Picts are often said to have practised matrilineal kingship succession on the basis of Irish legends and a statement in Bede‘s history. The kings of the Picts when Bede was writing were Bridei and Nechtan, sons of Der Ilei, who indeed claimed the throne through their mother Der Ilei, daughter of an earlier Pictish king.

In Ireland, kings were expected to come from among those who had a great-grandfather who had been king. Kingly fathers were not frequently succeeded by their sons, not because the Picts practised matrilineal succession, but because they were usually followed by their own brothers or cousins, more likely to be experienced men with the authority and the support necessary to be king. This was similar to tanistry.

The nature of kingship changed considerably during the centuries of Pictish history. While earlier kings had to be successful war leaders to maintain their authority, kingship became rather less personalised and more institutionalised during this time. Bureaucratic kingship was still far in the future when Pictland became Alba, but the support of the church, and the apparent ability of a small number of families to control the kingship for much of the period from the later 7th century onwards, provided a considerable degree of continuity.

In much the same period, the Picts’ neighbours in Dál Riata and Northumbria faced considerable difficulties, as the stability of succession and rule that previously benefited them ended.

The later Mormaers are thought to have originated in Pictish times, and to have been copied from, or inspired by, Northumbrian usages. It is unclear whether the Mormaers were originally former kings, royal officials, or local nobles, or some combination of these. Likewise, the Pictish shires and thanages, traces of which are found in later times, are thought to have been adopted from their southern neighbours.

The Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Class I Pictish stone with Pictish symbols, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod and the mirror and comb.

The archaeological record provides evidence of the material culture of the Picts. It tells of a society not readily distinguishable from its British, Gaelic, or Anglo-Saxon neighbours. Although analogy and knowledge of other so-called ‘Celtic’ societies (a term they never used for themselves) may be a useful guide, these extended across a very large area. Relying on knowledge of pre-Roman Gaul, or 13th century Ireland, as a guide to the Picts of the 6th century may be misleading if analogy is pursued too far.

As with most peoples in the north of Europe in Late Antiquity, the Picts were farmers living in small communities. Cattle and horses were an obvious sign of wealth and prestige, sheep and pigs were kept in large numbers, and place names suggest that transhumance was common.

Animals were small by later standards, although horses from Britain were imported into Ireland as breed-stock to enlarge native horses. From Irish sources it appears that the élite engaged in competitive cattle-breeding for size, and this may have been the case in Pictland also.

Pictish Burghead Bull (British Museum).

Carvings show hunting with dogs, and also, unlike in Ireland, with falcons. Cereal crops included wheat, barley, oats and rye. Vegetables included kale, cabbage, onions and leeks, peas and beans and turnips, and some types no longer common, such as skirret. Plants such as wild garlic, nettles and watercress may have been gathered in the wild.

The pastoral economy meant that hides and leather were readily available. Wool was the main source of fibres for clothing, and flax was also common, although it is not clear if they grew it for fibres, for oil, or as a foodstuff. Fish, shellfish, seals, and whales were exploited along coasts and rivers. The importance of domesticated animals suggests that meat and milk products were a major part of the diet of ordinary people, while the élite would have eaten a diet rich in meat from farming and hunting.

No Pictish counterparts to the areas of denser settlement around important fortresses in Gaul and southern Britain, or any other significant urban settlements, are known. Larger, but not large, settlements existed around royal forts, such as at Burghead Fort, or associated with religious foundations. No towns are known in Scotland until the 12th century.

The technology of everyday life is not well recorded, but archaeological evidence shows it to have been similar to that in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. Recently evidence has been found of watermills in Pictland. Kilns were used for drying kernels of wheat or barley, not otherwise easy in the changeable, temperate climate.

The early Picts are associated with piracy and raiding along the coasts of Roman Britain. Even in the Late Middle Ages, the line between traders and pirates was unclear, so that Pictish pirates were probably merchants on other occasions.

It is generally assumed that trade collapsed with the Roman Empire, but this is to overstate the case. There is only limited evidence of long-distance trade with Pictland, but tableware and storage vessels from Gaul, probably transported up the Irish Sea, have been found. This trade may have been controlled from Dunadd in Dál Riata, where such goods appear to have been common. While long-distance travel was unusual in Pictish times, it was far from unknown as stories of missionaries, travelling clerics and exiles show.

Brochs are popularly associated with the Picts. Although these were built earlier in the Iron Age, with construction ending around 100 AD, they remained in use into and beyond the Pictish period. Crannóg, which may originate in Neolithic Scotland, may have been rebuilt, and some were still in use in the time of the Picts. The most common sort of buildings would have been roundhouses and rectangular timbered halls. While many churches were built in wood, from the early 8th century, if not earlier, some were built in stone.

Reconstructed crannóg on Loch Tay.

The Picts are often said to have tattooed themselves, but evidence for this is limited. Naturalistic depictions of Pictish nobles, hunters and warriors, male and female, without obvious tattoos, are found on monumental stones. These stones include inscriptions in Latin and ogham script, not all of which have been deciphered. The well known Pictish symbols found on standing stones and other artifacts, have defied attempts at translation over the centuries. Pictish art can be classed as ‘Celtic’ (a term not coined till the 1850s), and later as Insular. Irish poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves.

The harpist on the Dupplin Cross, Scotland, c. 800 AD.

Early Pictish religion is presumed to have resembled Celtic polytheism in general, although only place names remain from the pre-Christian era. When the Pictish elite converted to Christianity is uncertain, but traditions place Saint Palladius in Pictland after he left Ireland, and link Abernethy with Saint Brigid of Kildare. Saint Patrick refers to “apostate Picts”, while the poem Y Gododdin does not remark on the Picts as pagans.

Bede wrote that Saint Ninian (confused by some with Saint Finnian of Moville, who died c. 589), had converted the southern Picts. Recent archaeological work at Portmahomack places the foundation of the monastery there, an area once assumed to be among the last converted, in the late 6th century. This is contemporary with Bridei mac Maelchon and Columba, but the process of establishing Christianity throughout Pictland will have extended over a much longer period.

An early 20th century depiction of Saint Columba’s miracle at the gate of King Bridei’s fortress, described in Adomnán’s late 7th century Vita Columbae.

Pictland was not solely influenced by Iona and Ireland. It also had ties to churches in Northumbria, as seen in the reign of Nechtan mac Der Ilei. The reported expulsion of Ionan monks and clergy by Nechtan in 717 may have been related to the controversy over the dating of Easter, and the manner of tonsure, where Nechtan appears to have supported the Roman usages, but may equally have been intended to increase royal power over the church. Nonetheless, the evidence of place names suggests a wide area of Ionan influence in Pictland. Likewise, the Cáin Adomnáin (Law of Adomnán, Lex Innocentium) counts Nechtan’s brother Bridei among its guarantors.

The importance of monastic centres in Pictland was not, perhaps, as great as in Ireland. In areas that have been studied, such as Strathspey and Perthshire, it appears that the parochial structure of the High Middle Ages existed in early medieval times. Among the major religious sites of eastern Pictland were Portmahomack, Cennrígmonaid (later St Andrews), Dunkeld, Abernethy and Rosemarkie. It appears that these are associated with Pictish kings, which argues for a considerable degree of royal patronage and control of the church. Portmahomack in particular has been the subject of recent excavation and research, published by Martin Carver.

The cult of Saints was, as throughout Christian lands, of great importance in later Pictland. While kings might patronise great Saints, such as Saint Peter in the case of Nechtan, and perhaps Saint Andrew in the case of the second Óengus mac Fergusa, many lesser Saints, some now obscure, were important. The Pictish Saint Drostan appears to have had a wide following in the north in earlier times, although he was all but forgotten by the 12th century. Saint Serf of Culross was associated with Nechtan’s brother Bridei. It appears, as is well known in later times, that noble kin groups had their own patron saints, and their own churches or abbeys.

The Pictish language is extinct. Evidence is limited to place names, the names of people found on monuments, and the contemporary records. The evidence of place-names and personal names argues strongly that the Picts spoke Insular Celtic languages related to the more southerly Brittonic languages. A number of Ogham inscriptions have been argued to be unidentifiable as Celtic, and on this basis, it has been suggested that non-Celtic languages were also in use.

The absence of surviving written material in Pictish—if the ambiguous “Pictish inscriptions” in the Ogham script are discounted—does not indicate a pre-literate society. The church certainly required literacy in Latin, and could not function without copyists to produce liturgical documents. Pictish iconography shows books being read, and carried, and its naturalistic style gives every reason to suppose that such images were of real life. Literacy was not widespread, but among the senior clergy, and in monasteries, it would have been common enough.

Place-names often allow us to deduce the existence of historic Pictish settlements in Scotland. Those prefixed with the Brittonic prefixes “Aber-“, “Lhan-“, or “Pit-” (=? “peth”, a thing) are claimed to indicate regions inhabited by Picts in the past (for example: Aberdeen, Lhanbryde, Pitmedden, etc.). Some of these, such as “Pit-” (portion, share), may have been formed after Pictish times, and may refer to previous “shires” or “thanages”.

The evidence of place-names may also reveal the advance of Gaelic into Pictland. As noted, Atholl, meaning New Ireland, is attested in the early 8th century. This may be an indication of the advance of Gaelic. Fortriu also contains place-names suggesting Gaelic settlement, or Gaelic influences. A pre-Gaelic interpretation of the name as Athfocla meaning ‘north pass’ or ‘north way’, as in gateway to Moray, suggests that the Gaelic Athfotla may be a Gaelic misreading of the minuscule c for t.

Medieval Welsh tradition credited the founding of Gwynedd to the Picts and traced their principal royal families—the Houses of Aberffraw and Dinefwr—to Cunedda Wledig, said to have invaded northern Wales from Lothian.

References

  • James E. Fraser, The New Edinburgh History Of Scotland Vol.1From Caledonia To Pictland, Edinburgh University Press(2009) ISBN 978-0-7486-1232-1
  • Fraser Hunter, Beyond the Edge of Empire: Caledonians, Picts and Romans, Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie (2007) ISBN 978-0-9540999-2-3
  • Alex Woolf, The New Edinburgh History Of Scotland Vol.2From Pictland To Alba, Edinburgh University Press,(2007) ISBN 978-0-7486-1234-5
  • Benjamin Hudson: The Picts. Wiley Blackwell, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4051-8678-0 (cloth); ISBN 978-1-118-60202-7 (paperback).

Saint Gildas

 

Gildas (Breton: Gweltaz, c. 500–570) — also known as Gildas the Wise or Gildas Sapiens — was a 6th-century British monk best known for his scathing religious polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which recounts the history of the Britons before and during the coming of the Saxons.

He is one of the best-documented figures of the Christian church in the British Isles during the sub-Roman period, and was renowned for his Biblical knowledge and literary style. In his later life, he emigrated to Brittany where he founded a monastery known as St. Gildas de Rhuys.

Differing versions of the Life of Saint Gildas exist, but both agree that he was born in what is now Scotland on the banks of the River Clyde, and that he was the son of a royal family. These works were written in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and are regarded by scholars as unhistorical.

He is now thought to have his origins further south. In his own work, he claims to have been born the same year as the Battle of Mount Badon. He was educated at a monastic center, possibly Cor Tewdws under St. Illtud, where he chose to forsake his royal heritage and embrace monasticism. He became a renowned teacher, converting many to Christianity and founding numerous churches and monasteries throughout Britain and Ireland.

He is thought to have made a pilgrimage to Rome before emigrating to Brittany, where he took on the life of a hermit. However, his life of solitude was short-lived, and pupils soon sought him out and begged him to teach them. He eventually founded a monastery for these students at Rhuys, where he wrote De Excidio Britanniae, criticising British rulers and exhorting them to put off their sins and embrace true Christian faith.

He is thought to have died at Rhuys, and was buried there.

The Epistle of Gildas

There are two different historical versions of the life of Gildas, the first written by an anonymous monk in the 9th century, and the other written by Caradoc of Llancarfan in the middle of the 12th century. Some historians have attempted to explain the differences in the versions by saying that there were two saints named Gildas, but the more general opinion is that there was only one St. Gildas and that the discrepancies between the two versions can be accounted for by the fact that they were written several centuries apart. The 9th century Rhuys Life is generally accepted as being more accurate.

The First Life of St. Gildas was written by an unnamed monk at the monastery which Gildas founded in Rhuys, Brittany in the 9th century. According to this tradition, Gildas is the son of Caunus, king of Alt Clut in the Hen Ogledd, the Brythonic-speaking region of northern Britain.

He had four brothers; his brother Cuillum ascended to the throne on the death of his father, but the rest became monks in their own right. Gildas was sent as a child to the College of Theodosius (Cor Tewdws) in Glamorgan, under the care of St. Illtud, and was a companion of St. Sampson and St. Paul of Léon.

His master St. Illtud loved him tenderly and taught him with special zeal. He was supposed to be educated in liberal arts and divine scripture, but elected to study only holy doctrine, and to forsake his noble birth in favour of a religious life.

The spring of St. Gildas in Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, Morbihan.

After completing his studies under St. Illtud, Gildas went to Ireland where he was ordained as a priest. He returned to his native lands in northern Britain where he acted as a missionary, preaching to the pagan people and converting many of them to Christianity.

He was then asked by Ainmericus, high king of Ireland (Ainmuire mac Sétnai, 566–569), to restore order to the church in Ireland, which had altogether lost the Christian faith. Gildas obeyed the king’s summons and travelled all over the island, converting the inhabitants, building churches, and establishing monasteries. He then travelled to Rome and Ravenna where he performed many miracles, including slaying a dragon while in Rome.

Intending to return to Britain, he instead settled on the Isle of Houat off Brittany where he led a solitary, austere life. At around this time, he also preached to Nonnita, the mother of Saint David, while she was pregnant with the saint.

He was eventually sought out by those who wished to study under him, and was entreated to establish a monastery in Brittany. He built an oratory on the bank of the River Blavetum (River Blavet), today known as St. Gildas de Rhuys. Fragments of letters that he wrote reveal that he composed a Rule for monastic life that was somewhat less austere than the Rule written by Saint David.

Inside the old Abbey Church of St. Gildas in Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys.

Ten years after leaving Britain, he wrote an epistolary book in which he reproved five of the British kings. He died at Rhuys on 29 January 570, and his body was placed on a boat and allowed to drift, according to his wishes. Three months later, on 11 May, men from Rhuys found the ship in a creek with the body of Gildas still intact. They took the body back to Rhuys and buried it there.

Llancarfan Life: Gildas and King Arthur

The second “Life” of St. Gildas was written by Caradoc of Llancarfan, a friend of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Norman patrons. However, Llancarfan’s work is most probably historically inaccurate, as his hagiographies tend towards the fictitious, rather than the strictly historical.

Llancarfan’s “Life” was written in the 12th century, and includes many elements of what have come to be known as mythical pseudo-histories, involving King Arthur, Guinevere, and Glastonbury Abbey, leading to the general opinion that this “life” is less historically accurate than the earlier version.

For example, according to the dates in the Annales Cambriae, Gildas would have been a contemporary of King Arthur: however, Gildas’ work never mentions Arthur by name, even though he gives a history of the Britons, and states that he was born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill, in which Arthur is supposed to have vanquished the Saxons.

In the Llancarfan Life, St. Gildas was the son of Nau, king of Scotia. Nau had 24 sons, all victorious warriors. Gildas studied literature as a youth, before leaving his homeland for Gaul, where he studied for seven years. When he returned, he brought back an extensive library with him, and was sought after as a master teacher. He became the most renowned teacher in all of the three kingdoms of Britain.

Gildas was a subject of the mythical King Arthur, whom he loved and desired to obey. However, his 23 brothers were always rising up against their rightful king, and his eldest brother, Hueil, would submit to no rightful high king, not even Arthur. Hueil would often swoop down from Scotland to fight battles and carry off spoils, and during one of these raids, Hueil was pursued and killed by King Arthur.

When news of his brother’s murder reached Gildas in Ireland, he was greatly grieved, but was able to forgive Arthur, and pray for the salvation of his soul. Gildas then travelled to Britain, where he met Arthur face to face, and kissed him as he prayed for forgiveness, and Arthur accepted penance for murdering Gildas’ brother.

After this, Gildas taught at the school of St. Cadoc, before retiring to a secret island for seven years. Pirates from the Orkney Islands came and sacked his island, carrying off goods and his friends as slaves. In distress, he left the island, and came to Glastonbury, then ruled by Melvas, King of the ‘Summer Country’ (Gwlad yr Haf, Somerset). Gildas intervened between King Arthur and Melvas, who had abducted and raped Arthur’s wife Guinevere and brought her to his stronghold at Glastonbury. Arthur soon arrived to besiege him, but, the peacemaking saint persuaded Melvas to release Guinevere and the two kings made peace. Then desiring to live a hermit’s life, Gildas built a hermitage devoted to the Trinity on the banks of the river at Glastonbury. He died, and was buried at Glastonbury Abbey, in the floor of St. Mary’s Church.

Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey.

The Llancarfan Life contains the earliest surviving appearance of the abduction of Guinevere episode, common in later Arthurian literature. Huail’s enmity with Arthur was also apparently a popular subject in medieval Britain: he is mentioned as an enemy of Arthur’s in the Welsh prose tale Culhwch and Olwen, written around 1100.

A strongly held tradition in North Wales places the beheading of Gildas’ brother Huail at Ruthin, where what is believed to be the execution stone has been preserved in the town square. Another brother of Gildas, Celyn ap Caw, was based in the north-east corner of Anglesey.

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

Gildas is best known for his polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which recounts the sub-Roman history of Britain, and which is the only substantial source for history of this period written by a near-contemporary.

The work is a sermon in three parts condemning the acts of his contemporaries, both secular and religious. The first part consists of Gildas’ explanation for his work and a brief narrative of Roman Britain from its conquest under the Principate to Gildas’ time. He describes the doings of the Romans and the Groans of the Britons, in which the Britons make one last request for military aid from the departed Roman military. He excoriates his fellow Britons for their sins, while at the same time lauding heroes such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom he is the first to describe as a leader of the resistance to the Saxons. He mentions the victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, a feat attributed to King Arthur in later texts, though Gildas is unclear as to who led the battle.

Ambrosius Aurelianus, as he may have appeared.

Part two consists of a condemnation of five British kings, Constantine, Aurelius Conanus, Vortiporius, Cuneglas, and Maelgwn. As it is the only contemporary information about them, it is of particular interest to scholars of British history. Part three is a similar attack on the clergy of the time.

The works of Gildas, including the Excidio, can be found in volume 69 of the Patrologia Latina.

De Excidio is usually dated to the 540s, but the historian Guy Halsall inclines to an “early Gildas” c. 490. Cambridge historian Karen George offers a date range of c. 510–530 AD.

Veneration

Gildas’ relics were venerated in the abbey which he founded in Rhuys, until the 10th century, when they were removed to Berry. In the 18th century, they were said to be moved to the cathedral at Vannes and then hidden during the French Revolution. The various relics survived the revolution and have all since been returned to Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys where they are visible at various times of the year at a dedicated “treasury” in the village. The body of Saint Gildas (minus the pieces incorporated into various reliquaries) is buried behind the altar in the church of Saint Gildas de Rhuys.

The gold and silver covered relics of Saint Gildas include:

  • A reliquary head containing parts of the saints skull
  • An arm reliquary containing bone pieces, topped with a blessing hand
  • A reliquary femur and knee

The embroidered mitre supposedly worn by Gildas is also kept with these relics. Gildas is the patron saint of several churches and monasteries in Brittany, and his feast day is celebrated on 29 January.

Gildas is credited with a hymn called the Lorica, or Breastplate, a prayer for deliverance from evil, which contains specimens of Hiberno-Latin. A proverb is also attributed to Gildas mab y Gaw in the Englynion y Clyweid in Llanstephan MS. 27.

In Bonedd y Saint, Gildas is recorded as having three sons and a daughter. Gwynnog ap Gildas and Noethon ap Gildas are named in the earliest tracts, together with their sister Dolgar. Another son, Tydech, is named in a later document. Iolo Morganwg adds Saint Cenydd to the list.

The scholar David Dumville suggests that Gildas was the teacher of Finnian of Moville, who in turn was the teacher of St. Columba of Iona.

References

 

 

 

Timeline of conflict in Anglo-Saxon Britain

Hengist and Horsa are legendary brothers said to have led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in their invasion of Britain in the 5th century. Tradition lists Hengist as the first of the Jutish kings of Kent.

The Timeline of conflict in Anglo-Saxon Britain is concerned with the period of history from just before the departure of the Roman Army, in the 4th century, to just after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century.

The information is mainly derived from annals and the Venerable Bede. The dates, particularly from the fourth to the late sixth centuries, have very few contemporary sources and are largely later constructions by medieval chroniclers. The historian Diana Greenway described one such 12th century chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, as a ‘weaver’ compiler of history, and the archaeologist Martin Welch described the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as “a product of the West Saxon court… concerned with glorifying the royal ancestry of Alfred the Great.

Henry of Huntingdon

Manipulation of royal genealogies, in this and other sources, to enhance the claims of present rulers was common. Literary formulas associated with original myths are a common feature of earlier entries.” Although the timeline uses the annals for this period of history, information provided by these sources can be problematic, particularly with the earlier dates.

Chronology

Constructing a chronology of the early Anglo-Saxon period, and how the Anglo-Saxons took over land in Britain from Romano-Britons (Celtic-speakers, Latin-speakers, or both), is highly complex. The limitations of source material place restrictions on just how accurate any chronology can be. As an example, the following table shows how much variation there is between historians on just one date, the Battle of Badon:

 

Suggested dates for the Battle of Badon
Sources Date
Annales Cambriae 516
Bede 493
Higham c. 430 – c. 440
Snyder c. 485
M. Wood 490s
Morris 494–497
Dumville c.500
I. Wood c. 485 – c.520

 

Much of the dating of the period comes from Bede (672/673–735), who in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tried to compute dates for events in early Anglo-Saxon history. Although primarily writing about church history, Bede is seen as Britain’s first true historian, in that he cited his references and listed events according to dates rather than regnal lists.

So we know that he relied heavily on De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae by Gildas, a sixth-century cleric, for his early dates and historians have found Gildas unreliable where dates were concerned. Bede’s work was widely read among the literate in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and his dates were used by the monks who compiled the various Anglo-Saxon Chronicles from the late ninth century onwards.

Excerpt from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

The most controversial dates in the period—those from the fourth to the late sixth centuries—have very few contemporary sources, and are mainly derived from later attempts to construct Anglo-Saxon history.

The following is an outline of some events recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), and Brut y Tywysogion. Many of the dates from the fourth, fifth, and sixth century are points of contention.

4th Century

360 AD and after, and perhaps before: various Germanic peoples (Alemanni, Saxons, etc.) came to Roman Britain: raiders, Roman armies recruited from among German tribes, some settlers (The Saxon Shore (Latin: litus Saxonicum)).

Picts depicted fighting Roman soldiers and Saxon mercenaries beyond Hadrians Wall.

5th Century

  • 410 AD: Emperor Honorius refuses a call for help from Britain, tells the cities to look to their own defence.
  • c.430 to 520: The range of dates for the Battle of Badon. See effects of the battle for the strategic situation resulting afterwards.
  • About 446: The “Groans of the Britons” – A last appeal (possibly to the Consul Aetius) for the Roman army to come back to Britain.
  • 449: Vortigern invites Saxons to come and help them against the Picts, who were raiding the east coast, and allows them to settle on “The eastern side of the island.” (The name Vortigern may mean “Great King” rather than being a lifelong personal name.)
  • 455:  (Battle of Aylesford: Here Hengest and Horsa fought against Vortigern the king, in the place that is called Aylesford, and his brother Horsa was slain; and after that Hengest took the throne with Æsc, his son.)
  • 457:  (Here Hengest & Æsc fought against Britons in the place which is called Crecganford and there slew 4000 men, and the Britons abandoned Kent and with great fear fled to London.)
  • c. 460: Treachery of the Long Knives, Death of all British kings, Begin of violent land grab by Saxons.
  • 466: Battle of Wippedesfleot  Here Hengest and Æsc fought together against the Welsh (meaning ‘foreigner’: the manner in which the invaders referred to the Britons) near Wippedesfleot and there slew 12 Welsh chief men, and one of their thanes was slain, whose name was Wipped. [This battle is said to have resulted in much bloodshed and slaughter on both sides, to the extent that hostilities abated for a while thereafter. It is not known where Wippedesfleot (= “Wipped’s tidal estuary”) was.])
  • 473: (Here Hengest & Æsc fought against Welsh and took countless war-loot, and the Welsh fled from the English like fire.)
  • 477: (Here Ælle came to Britain and [with him] his 3 sons Cymen & Wlencing & Cissa, with 3 ships to the place which is named Cymenesora [probably now The Owers, rocks off Selsey in West Sussex ], and there slew many Welsh & drove some in flight into the wood which is called Andredesleag [= The Weald ].)
  • 485: Battle of Mercredesburne  (Here Ælle fought against Welsh near the margin of Mearcrædesburna [= Mearcræd’s stream].)
  • 491: (Here Ælle and Cissa besieged Andredescester [now Pevensey ] and slew all who dwelt therein; no Briton was left [alive] afterwards.)
  • c. 497: Defeat of the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Mons Badonicus by Britons led by King Arthur.
The brothers in Edward Parrott’s Pageant of British History (1909).

6th Century

  • Around 500 AD: Average of suggested dates for the Battle of Badon.
  • Around 500 AD: Angles colonised the North Sea and Humber coastal areas, particularly around Holderness.
  • 501: (Here Port and his 2 sons Bieda and Mægla came to Britain with 2 ships to the place which is called Portsmouth and slew a young British man, a very noble man. [But this may be an old fiction, as a folk-etymology to explain the placename Ports-mouth.] )
  • 508: (Here Cerdic and Cynric slew a British king, whose name was Natanleod, and 5000 men with him. Afterwards that land was named Natanleag as far as Cerdicesford [= North Charford and South Charford ].)
  • c. 520: Saxons took control of Sussex, Kent, East Anglia and part of Yorkshire, West Saxons founded a Kingdom in Hampshire under Cerdic.
  • 535 & 536: The extreme weather events of 535-536 likely caused a great famine and thus population loss.
  • In or before 547: Bernicia established by Angles taking over part of a British area called Bryneich.
  • Around 549: A great plague caused much population loss.
  • About 560: Saxons conquered all of east Yorkshire and the British kingdom of Ebrauc, and there established Deira.
  • 571: (Battle of Bedcanford: Here Cuthwulf fought against Britons at Bedcanford and took 4 settlements: Limbury, Aylesbury, Benson & Eynsham. And in the same year he died.)
  • 573: Battle of Arfderydd at Arthuret in Cumbria: Briton fought Briton and weakened their numbers.
  • 577: Battle of Dyrham: Capture of Glevum, Corinium, Aquae Sulis by Saxons of Wessex led by Cealin. (Here Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against Britons and they slew 3 kings: Coinmail & Condidan & Farinmail, in the place which is called Dyrham, and took 3 towns: Gloucester & Cirencester & Bath. ): These entries seem to show that the Britons’ defences in the English Midlands collapsed, and the peace that followed the Battle of Mons Badonicus ended, and the Saxons obliterated the British Watling Street salient and united their areas and overran the London – Verulamium area and much of the plain of the Midlands. Loss of Bath would separate the Britons of Wales from the Britons of the southwest. After this, the border between Saxons and the southwest Britons was probably at the Wansdyke along the ridge of the Mendip Hills.
  • 581: Ælla of Deira took land from the Britons, thus establishing or enlarging Deira.
  • Around 584: The Kingdom of the Iclingas became Mercia.
  • 584: (Battle of Fethanleag: Here Ceawlin and Cutha fought against Britons in the place that is named Fethanleag and Cutha was slain, and Ceawlin took many settlements and countless war-loot, and in anger he returned to his own land.)
  • 590: Elmet joined an alliance of British kingdoms against the expanding Angles of Bernicia. See Elmet and History of Yorkshire Sub-Roman.
  • 592, West Saxons are defeated in the Battle of Woden’s Burg (Wōden‘s Burg).
  • 596, Angles defeated an alliance of Britons, Scots and Picts in the Battle of Raith.
  • Afterwards: The British king, Urien of Rheged was murdered. A feud broke out between two of this alliance’s key members.
Angles Saxona Invasion of Britain.

7th Century

  • Around 600: Battle of Catraeth (Catterick): also see Y Gododdin: An army from the Celtic kingdom of Gododdin fell in battle against the Angles of Deira and Bernicia at Catterick in Yorkshire.
  • Around 604: Deira and Bernicia united as Northumbria.
  • Afterwards: Elmet built earthworks north and west of Barwick-in-Elmet, where Elmet’s king’s seat was.
  • 614: (Here Cynegils and Cwichelm fought [on the same side] on Beandun, and slew 2,066 Welsh.)
  • 616: Autumn – Northumbria invaded and conquered Elmet.
  • 616: Likeliest date for the Battle of Chester, between a Northumbrian army and a Welsh army: heavy Welsh casualties, and their defeat severed the land connection between Wales and the Celts of northwest Britain.
  • 633, October 12: Battle of Hatfield (AC: 630, Meigen) near Doncaster in Yorkshire: Gwynedd and Mercia attacked and defeated Northumbria; Elmet and Ebrauc temporarily returned to Celtic rule.
  • 633 or 634: Battle of Heavenfield (AC: 631, Cantscaul) about 6 miles NW of Hexham: Northumbria expels the Gwynedd army.
  • 642: (Here Oswald king of Northumbria was slain) This may be the same battle as:-
  • 644: The Battle of Maserfield (alias Battle of Maes Cogwy), in which Oswald king of the Northmen and Eawa king of the Celtic Mercians fell. AC B
  • 652: Cenwalh of Wessex won a battle at Bradford-on-Avon.
  • 655, Nov 15: Battle of the Winwaed in which King Oswiu of Bernicia defeated and killed King Penda of Mercia. King Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd was allied with Penda but stayed out of the battle.
  • 658: (Here Cenwalh fought against Welsh [= Britons] at Penselwood, and drove them in flight as far as [the river] Parrett [in Somerset]; this was fought after he came from East Anglia. He was there 3 years in exile. Penda had driven him out, and taken his kingdom, because he abandoned his [= Penda’s] sister.)
  • 682: This year also, Centwine chased the Britons into the sea.
A twelfth-century painting of St Oswald, killed at Maserfield, in Durham Cathedral.

8th Century

  • 710: (… and in the same year ealdorman Beorhtfrith fought against Picts between [the rivers] Avon and Carron [which flow into the River Forth from the south about 20 miles west of Edinburgh ], and Ine and his relative Nunna fought against Geraint king of Welsh … [This second battle may have been the Battle of Llongborth.] ) …
  • 722: According to the Annales Cambriae, 722 saw “the battle of Hehil among the Cornish, the battle of Garth Maelog, [and] the battle of Pencon among the south Britons, and the Britons were the victors in those three battles.”
  • Before 730: Northumbria annexed the kingdom of Rheged.
  • 760: A battle between the Britons and the Saxons, the Battle of Hereford, in which Dyfnwal son of Tewdwr dies.
  • 778: The devastation of the South Britons by Offa.
  • 779: “Cynewulf and Offa fought at Bensington, and Offa took the town.”
  • 784: The devastation of Britain by Offa in the summer
  • 794: (796 [corrected from 794]: In this year pope Hadrian and king Offa die.) (797: Offa king of the Mercians and Maredudd king of the Demetians die, and the battle of Rhuddlan.)
  • 798: Caradog king of Gwynedd is killed by the Saxons.
King Offa of Mercia Penny.

9th Century

  • 813: (815 [corrected from 813]: … and in this year king Ecgbryht raided in Cornwall from east to west.)
  • 816: … Saxons invaded the mountains of Eryri and the kingdom of Rhufoniog.
  • 818: Cenwulf devastated the Dyfed region.
  • 822: The fortress of Degannwy is destroyed by the Saxons and they took the kingdom of Powys into their own control.
  • 823: (825 [corrected from 823]: Here was a fight of Welsh/Britons [against] men of Devon at Gafulford …)
  • 835:  (838 [corrected from 835]: Here a great ship-army [of Vikings] came to Cornwall and they [= the Cornish] joined them, and were fighting against Ecgbryht king of the West Saxons. Then he heard and with an army fought against them at Hengestdun and there put to flight both the Cornish and the Danes.)
  • 877: Rhodri Mawr, a Welsh opponent of the Vikings, and his son Gwriad were killed by Mercian forces, even though Mercia was almost completely under the control of the Vikings at the time.
  • 878: Alfred the Great defeated the remnants of the Great Heathen Army at The Battle of Edington.
  • 893:A combined force containing men from Mercia, Wessex and Wales besieged the Vikings at Buttington for several weeks, starving them out until finally the Vikings had to emerge and they were defeated there by the English and the Welsh: the surviving Vikings fled back to Essex.
The Great Heathen Army approaches English shores aboard a Viking Long-ship.

10th Century

  • 927: Athelstan evicted the Cornish from Exeter and refortified the city.
  • 936: King Athelstan set the boundary between England and Cornwall at the River Tamar.
  • 946: … And Strathclyde was laid waste by the Saxons.

11th Century

  • 1016: Battle of Assandun, fought in Essex on 18 October between the armies of Edmund Ironside (King of England) and Canute (King of Denmark).
  • 1059: Macht, son of Harold, came to Wales with a great army in his train; and the Prince Gruffudd, and Macht, with combined forces, proceeded against the Saxons, and devastated the country of England a great way towards its centre; and they returned to Wales with great spoil.
  • 1060: Caradoc, son of Rhydderch, son of lestin, hired Harold to come with an army to S.Wales. Then, conjointly with a great host of the men of Glamorgan and Gwent, they went against Grufudd. After Grufudd, son of Llywelyn, was slain, his head was cut off and taken as a present to Harold. (The ASC dates this as 1063)
  • 1063: Here Earl Harold and his brother Earl Tostig went into Wales both with land-army and ship-army, and conquered that land; and that people gave hostages and submitted to them, and afterwards went to and killed their king Gruffudd, and brought Harold his head, and he set another king for it. (Peterborough manuscript).
  • 1066: Battle of Hastings. William, Duke of Normandy, came as an intruder to the island of Britain, and a pitched battle took place between him and Harold; in which, after a severe and bloody fight, Harold was killed.
  • 1068: Some of the Saxons sought protection from the Normans in Powys then.. Afterwards, by the power of the Saxons, Bleddyn, son of Cynvyn, reigned sole king of Gwynedd and Powys; and Meredydd, son of Owain, son of Edwin, by the power of the Saxons became prince of South Wales.
William I King of England.

References

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Commissioned in the reign of Alfred the Great
  • Asser (2004). Keyne Lapidge tr, ed. Alfred the Great. Penguin Classic. ISBN 978-0-14-044409-4.
  • Bede (1990). Sherley-Price, Leo; Farmer, D.H., eds. Bede:Ecclesiastical History of the English People. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
  • Bede. :Ecclesiastical History of the English People. (1903). Translation based on L.C. Jane
  • Berresford Ellis, Peter (1985). The Celtic Revolution: Study in Anti-imperialism . Wales: Y Lolfa. ISBN 0-86243-096-8.
  • Campbell, J. (1982). J. Campbell, ed. The Anglo- Saxons. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-014395-5.
  • Morgan,, Kathleen; Smith, Brian S (1972). Elrington, C R; Herbert, N M; Pugh, R B, eds. “Fretherne and Saul: Introduction”. A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 10: Westbury and Whitstone Hundreds. Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 18 March 2010.
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  • Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (1848). Translation based on Thomas Habington & J. A. Giles
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  • Lobel, Mary D., ed. (1959). “Parishes: Stoke Lyne”. A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 6. Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 18 March 2010.
  • Morris, John (1985) [1965]. “Dark Age Dates”. In Michael Jarrett and Brian Dobson. Britain and Rome.
  • Payton, Philip (1982). Cornwall: A History. Cornwall Editions Limited. ISBN 1-904880-05-3.
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (2003). The Britons. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-22260-6.
  • Stenton, F.M. (1971). Anglo-Saxon England 3rd edition. Oxford: OUP. ISBN 978-0-19-280139-5.
  • Walker, Ian (2000). Mercia and the Making of England. Stroud: Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-2131-5.
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  • Wood, Michael (1985). The Domesday Quest. London: BBC. ISBN 0-15-352274-7.
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