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  • Writer's pictureHenry Hopwood-Phillips

Romano-Britons: a strange brand of reactionaries

C5th Vergilius Romanus, Folio 101 recto, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3867. The conventional view of late antiquity is that Britain didn’t participate in it. Its islands were outliers in every sense – relics of a post-imperial dream fast sinking into Arthurian mists. Late antiquity – essentially code for relishing Roman continuity – was meant to have given Britain short shrift given the islands’ uniquely catastrophic fifth-century. At least over the waters the Franks occasionally pretended to be Roman-adjacent. The Saxons were all mud, beer, violence and paganism, or so the story goes.

Of course academia is a little more nuanced. Until the 1970s most believed Roman Britain wound down slowly like a sunset in the arctic. The brackets of decline were continually thrown backwards to make room for a longue durée of neglect between 300 and 450. The inference being that the Britons were epicene Last Men; chaff begging for a Saxon breeze to blow them away. Whenever these poor creatures – best imagined as a cross between druids and startled rabbits – were left alone they reverted to their Iron Age ways constructing giant mandalas of hill-fort sub-kingdoms. In brief, Roman Britain had constituted little more than a wearisome pantomime waiting for its final curtain.

In the 1990s a different idea took root. It framed Britain as a Roman powerhouse until 400 when the legions upped and offed to defend the motherland rather than the swamps of future Norfolk. These Britons – best envisaged as topless chaps trussed in Rupert the Bear trews, enough tattoos to make a sailor blush, and ginger-tinged walrus moustaches – found it no easier to run the place than the Indians had after another people with imperial pretensions handed them a subcontinent-sized foreign concept in 1947 (if the British invented or made possible India, the Romans had the same effect on Britain). The Saxons stepped into a vacuum and couldn’t quite believe their luck.

Another theory claimed the Britons were the worst of all worlds, a strange mix of feckless and modish. This meant swapping Roman clothes and customs for Saxon ones on a whim, making it difficult to be able to tell who was genociding, assimilating or breeding with whom.

An interesting proposition was that Britain was dominated by two kinds of Britons, an eastern variety best envisaged as sub-Romans and their western troglodyte cousins. When the east’s Germanic mercenaries rebelled, however, their civilisation was revealed as a veneer whereas their tribal brethren – akin to the Irish ri – remained undefeated thanks mainly to mountains, ambushes and the wily employment of Irish war-bands as mercenaries. A situation tolerated as semi-permanent by the Germanic mercenaries who conveniently adopted the identity of their Roman overlords and painted their opponents as trolls, pygmies, hobbits etc. You hear riffs on this theme today when people claim the Welsh are smaller, darker, Basque-esque types – a kind of marooned Spanish people hiding in the valleys.

These theories, however, were based on a criminal omission. They missed the fact that the Britons were not crypto, sub or pseudo-Roman but Romani Britanni and conservatively so. Britain did not bask in the afterglow of the continent’s late antiquity, it formed a sublime source of Romanitas. In fact, if Britain diverged from the continental path even a whisker it was because so much more of its Roman heritage survived than on the chaotic mainland where Germanics were footloose, fancy free, making polities on the hoof, and most importantly ruling over a thick sponge of passive subjects rather than roiling reactionaries.

Such theorists also downplay the reality that only rarely could the continent be considered serenely sub-Roman. While elements such as episcopal complexes and villas survived, so did Germanic equivalents with timber post-built rectangular houses and sunken-featured buildings. When the Frankish king Childeric was buried at Tournai in 482 his funeral was entirely pagan and Germanic in character accompanied by horse-sacrifices. In short, drawing thick red lines between the worlds of sub-Roman and Frankish elites is a fool’s errand, not least because ways and peoples were often fused beneath the rubric of a Romano-Christian culture. Hence surprises such as the fact popular sympathies in Italy often sided with Romanised Goths over Eastern Romans during the emperor Justinian’s attempt at a blitzkrieg-reconquista.

C4th Orpheus Pavement, still in situ buried in a churchyard but not been uncovered since 1973 when locals decided too many people were visiting and ruining the neighbourhood. A replica sold to an anonymous private bidder for £75,000 in 2018.

Roman heyday Britain certainly started very Roman. A villa at Woodchester, Gloucestershire, has the largest mosaic north of the Alps and the second largest in Europe (see image). Moreover, few villas were fortified giving the impression that the countryside was either exceptionally naive or free from regular violence. A dearth of mosaics can be explained by appealing to Britain's preference – given its chilly climate – for wall-hangings, carpets and patterned rugs to cold tesserae. It was also well-Christianised given the number of bishoprics in provincial capitals such as London, York, Cirencester and Lincoln, and the faith’s exceptional popularity in the countryside – a rare achievement in late antiquity.

General conservatism is a standout theme. For instance Roman-Britons were remarkably reluctant to use symbols such as the Chi-Rho or Cross. Perhaps they awaited signs of approval from trusted figures that never came, were unmoved by the common current of the Church, or – most unlikely – remained ignorant of these artistic trends. They were also conscious of sharing an identity with those north of Hadrian’s Wall as both were encompassed by the term “Combrogi,” the origin of the later “Cymru” and “Cumbria,” though rarely mobilised by this theoretical cousinhood. Additionally, they remained as aware as Sidonius Apollinaris of the Saxon’s characteristics – being blue-eyed sorts who sailed in hide-covered ships with the front of their heads shaved in contrast to wearing it long at the back.

Revolutionary conservatives

Barbarian raids seem to have resulted in several coups. Magnus Maximus took over in 383, Marcus in 406, and Constantine in 407. Britons clearly favoured the military quick fix of promoting domestic candidates to the throne in order to take British security seriously. But this trend in high politics floated above two deeper trends.

First, the bacaudae, best conceived as Robin Hood-esque discontents who formed an arc among the sub-Celtic world from north-west Spain through Gaul and almost certainly Britain. Zosimus recalled that the Britons of Britain and Armorica revolted against Roman rule in 409 for example. A revolution that suggests they had lost hope in Constantine III’s continental campaigns which ended in his execution in 411. Second, and perhaps more importantly, was the monastic movement. Whereas earlier Christian movements had been urban and fairly tolerant of paganism, St Martin of Tours pioneered a strident tone and encouraged his followers to smash temples to show pagans just how little divine favour they enjoyed. Ecclesiastics travelling between Britain and the Continent around the time of Germanus (d. 448 in Ravenna) had strong Martinian connections, and probably spread this militant Christianity which was associated – at least in Gaul – with an anti-establishment leadership. Gildas certainly associated this militant Christianity with a form of social revolution.

While occasionally missing a beat in the 400s – due mainly to the piratical antics of the Irish and Saxons – the Roman heart remained strong during St Patrick’s – Patricius’ – lifetime. The saint, for example, was the son of decurion suggesting some form of Roman local government was retained, wrote at length in Latin, referred to lots of grammatici, and expected his readers to be cultured. Like his contemporary Sidonius Apollinaris he was a third-generation Christian and well-acquainted with the ecclesiastical hierarchy and monasticism.

Gildas is venerated as St Gildas de Rhuys, Brittany, where he founded a monastery. Then there was Gildas who lived roughly 50 years later but had a much more biblical outlook. It is fashionable to lament that he was a fretful Jeremiah rather than take pride in the fact he was the first Briton whose works gained acknowledgement as possessing doctrinal merit. Moreover, his Latin typically gets a bad rap from critics who purse their lips at prose that they disparage as purple. Really, however, it was just polished and flaunted being fashioned in the tradition of rhetorici, which ensured the initiated were trained to fulfil the tasks of highly bureaucratic and technical Latin. He was also extraordinarily well-read, name-dropping authors from his extensive library, and giving allusive references that few can identify. Despite his moans and groans, Gildas’ very existence in the six century suggests Roman Britain had got something very right in the first place.

Furthermore there is the Vergilius Romanus, an illuminated manuscript written in the late fifth century with 19 pictures. Probably produced in Dorset, it is intriguing that a late fifth-century Briton knew enough of the classical past to depict North Africa in the time-honoured manner, conjuring the formulaic or antiquarian images of Roman art. The Wittenham stoup is a similar story. Decorated with copper alloy plates, they show reliefs from the Gospels and more importantly that Britain’s material culture was clearly Roman.

Literacy was not solely an elite sport either. Writing styli were discovered at sixth century settlements such as Cadbury Congresbury and Dinas Powys, and a signet-ring gemstone – imported from Byzantine territory – was found at Cefn Cwmwd in north Wales. A distinctive script known as the insular half-uncial developed during these centuries attesting the use of writing for informal purposes. It derived from Late Roman cursive – handwriting – which was used for letters and minor communications rather than books, inscriptions or official purposes.

C5th Cantiorix Inscription, near Ffestiniog, north Wales and now at the church at Penmachno, Conwy.

There are also dozens of Latin inscriptions on stone which contain Roman-Christian personal names, use Roman capitals and half-uncial script, as well as Roman terminology such as civis and magistratus, and sometimes deploy Latin poetry in the classical style. The spelling implies it was a living language spoken and inscriptions were strongly influenced by the rules of biblical-style Latin. These habits had a long life – historical figures such as Catamanus or Cadfan ap Iago, king of Gwynedd, are referenced as late as the seventh-century – and extend as far as the famous ninth-century pillar of Eliseg.

Though the society in which these authors operated was Late Roman, and boasted all the exotica of ivory rings, glass vessels, Byzantine copper alloy bowls, Byzantine coins, cowrie shells, amber beads, St Menas flasks, and so on, there were departures too. The existence of ruling (rather than client) kings – most obviously in the Celtic fringe of Dumnonia, Dyfed and Gwynedd in the sixth century – clearly broke the Roman pattern, and the rebellion of the Saxon foederati was successful enough to provoke a battle containing them at Mount Badon c. 500.

Yet these ruptures formed commas rather than fullstops. Some claim the sub-Roman world had definitively ended by the late sixth century because of the heroic poem Y Gododdin, which returned the public image of the Britons to Iron Age simpletons. The problem is that this would be a little like selecting London for a civilisational metric in 1900 and the Orkeneys in 2023 with the expectation that the results would mean much. In short, Y Gododdin is court poetry from beyond the northern frontier of Roman Britain – launched from Edinburgh – a fact that explains the differences in societies.

Further south Romano-British conservatism stood strong. If Gildas was an orthodox flagbearer, some reactionaries still flew the flag for Pelagius. An eighth century colophon on a Pelagian manuscript – his commentary on the Pauline Epistles – in Wales for instance suggests he was still disseminated two centuries after being condemned as heretical by Rome. Support probably rested on the basis that Britons felt continentals had misunderstood Pelagius, and that he had correctly pushed back against abuse of the idea that the Fall made us totally bad and those who enforced the notion that only the clergy could intercede between flock and God. To Pelagius this was not an opportunity for the laity to display humility but a potential pitfall in which clerics might become proud.

This would align with the view that the British Church struck a conservative chord on most theological controversies. Bede for example loathed the British habit of celebrating Easter at the “old-fashioned” time and that their monks wore an “old-fashioned” tonsure shaving the front of their heads ear to ear. As a general principle the Church seems to have frozen itself in time in order to avoid errors after its political severance from Rome, and in so doing ensured it was far more akin to the Church of the fourth century than its continental peers.

Yet in other ways the British Church kept itself abreast with the rest of the West. Most remarkable is a large basilican structure at Colchester House. Constructed around the early fifth century, it reused lots of building materials and spolia to create a huge aisled structure which resembles the plan of St Tecla, Milan, a major church built in 388, in what then constituted the capital of the western empire. This was probably the cathedral of late antique London.

The Roman wall of London, St Alpage © Anthony Payne The Germanic patterning

Germanics occupied a semicircle around the south of London from the late fifth century onwards. The distribution of their settlements suggests they defended strategic sites, especially transport links. Cremation roughly tallies with paganism. Originally operating as military detachments, they probably invited their brethren from the continent in the early sixth century as that’s when elite burials are observable due to rites such as horse burial and enclosure within a ringed ditch.

The spread of the Germanics was fairly haphazard, however. In contrast to maps that show large portions of eastern Britain being swallowed in large blobs, the Germanics behaved more like erratic arrows and left ginormous holes in their desperation to reach more desirable destinations. Kingdom-sized British patches were left around London, Chichester, Silchester, the Chilterns, the weald of Kent, north Hampshire and the Wash for example.

London’s model was repeated in the provincial capitals. Lincoln had a church that dates from this period in St Paul in the Bail – which may have been its cathedral – and it was also ringed by fifth-century Germanic burials almost certainly defending the city. York was the seat of a fourth-century bishopric. The location of St Michael le Belfrey church, firmly within the courtyard of the principia, parallels that of St Paul in the Bail. In other words Roman Britain shared the same priorities – faith and defence – expressed in other late antique capitals across Europe.

Even when these two items weren’t foremost on the agenda, Britons reverted to Roman type. Rather eccentrically for instance Shropshire’s Wroxeter – the fourth largest city in Roman Britain – was rebuilt as a wooden replica of its best Roman self in the sixth century. Elsewhere there is a close correlation between Late Roman and mediaeval settlement patterns, especially in the West Country where villas were repurposed as monasteries or minster sites for rural communities of priests. Much continuity is concealed by the sheer conservatism of the Britons who had a tendency to annex Roman saints and then forget, annex or fail to discover their origins. St Ia for instance had her vita invented yet she was a real saint who had been martyred in Iran and celebrated in Constantinople where her church stood outside the Golden Gate. St Stinian is a similar story; the name is a British version of Justinian. St Madron was St Matrona who also had a prominent church in Constantinople.

Even after the Germanic military settlement pattern broke down after the Saxon rebellion there was a spectrum of reactions. The Gewissae, meaning the “trusted” ones – whose base was Dorchester on Thames – probably earned their name from remaining loyal to the original security pacts, achieving a synthesis of Romano-British and Germanic cultures that was reflected in their mixed housing. At the opposite end of the spectrum was Kent, which was the first Germanic – later “English” – kingdom to stake out a claim based on a territory rather than marauding bands of Saxons.

Britons migrated as far as Galicia in Spain with British settlements receiving recognition at the First Council of Lugo in 569. The Celtic rites fell out of use after 633.

Centuries in exile

Despite the entries of the late ninth century Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which contains endless references to battles, it is clear that Britons rarely risked everything to fight their former defenders, the Saxon mercenaries. Flight was always on the table, a fact that ensured scant archaeological evidence has been left of Saxon slaughter. Large numbers of refugees fled to northern Gaul and northern Spain between the late fifth century and the early sixth. At least some of these communities arrived as organised communities under bishops. Gildas for instance claimed they “sang hymns” across the sea. Some of these vessels may explain eccentric coin finds such as a 40 nummi follis from the reign of Anastasius (r. 491-518) close to the entrance of Porth Hellick chambered tomb in the Isles of Scilly. One of the stranger phenomena in this period is that just as Britannia fell off the map in continental sources Britons popped up all over the Roman world. British pilgrims for example can be found in fifth-century Syria in the Vita of St Simeon Stylites, the egalitarian “Sicilian Briton” lived in fifth-century Sicily, British harpists roamed around like the itinerant minstrels of a later age, and finally a British monk Riochatus busied himself sourcing books from the rest of the Roman world according to the British bishop Faustus of Riez.

Roman Britain’s vanishing act from the horizon of other actors should not be confused with it actually vanishing. Instead the revolution that followed Constantine III’s reign – which was highly influenced by the aforementioned bacaudae and Martinian monasticism – must have expelled the diocesan authorities while retaining the provincial structure. This may explain why the emperor Honorius wrote to the 28 civitates in 410, a strategy that avoided directly addressing and therefore potentially legitimising the rebels. Concisely, Roman Britain decentralised, it didn't disappear, hence Prosper of Aquitaine's claim that Britain remained "Roman" while Ireland was "barbaric" in the 430s. Everybody constituted cives but whether they were citizens of Britain, Rome or Romano-Britain was ultimately a language game that depended on political circumstance. Even to insist on pure Britishness was to toy with the Christianity and civility that Britain had accrued through its Roman past when contrasted with the Scotti, Picti and Saxones. So strong were these assumptions that when Armes Prydein Vawr, which prophesied the expulsion of the English by a grand Celtic coalition, was written in the 10th century its notional alliance excluded those north of the Firth of Forth – essentially acknowledging that the Romano-British identity trumped any broader Celtic vibes when it came to defining the Brython (Britons).

It is incontestable, however, that parts of the economy collapsed. Large-scale manufacturing for instance essentially disappeared – most obviously in pottery c. 400. Late Roman kilns operated into the fifth and sixth centuries but distribution was extremely localised. Diocesan government must have been the ultimate guarantor of transport routes and its collapse directly impacted long-distance travel and transport costs.

A profound loss of ecumenicity

These large disruptions are coloured by the fact that the Britons – those eccentric beasts – only adopted Roman culture profoundly after the Roman empire had receded as a political threat. This Romano-Christian culture was exported from the core areas of western Britain and was far more substantial than sixth century “Anglo-Saxon England,” which has an ungainly prominence in mainstream historiography, an attitude that risks reading history backwards. Equally while some reach back for a Celtic bedrock as an explanatory factor, what bound people was less a dim sense of sharing a common nationality or language but rather a crystalline sense that the Church, the British Church, formed a brilliant constituent of the [Roman] Oikoumene in Christ. Most importantly, up to c. 600 Britain was not dominated by an Anglo-Saxon culture. Romano-Christian culture remained widespread and potent. Expressed in generations between 300-650 there were around a dozen generations who knew Britain only as a Roman stronghold even if they were not quite sure what had happened to the Romans. Which is not to say they did not know that their culture was potentially fraying at the edges, but – much like today – they had little idea about what might displace an unstable consensus. Few would have known their local (British) manifestations of grand (Roman) universals would be replaced with more parochial (Germanic) visions which would have the effect of reducing them to a gens within a bloc defined by the Rhine and Seine rather than the Mediterranean.

It was only in the seventh century that eastern Britain became noticeably Germanic and the latter’s material culture spread with its prestige, which piggybacked military victories. The main bookends would have been the deterioration of the popular memory of Roman rule c. 475 and the defeat of Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd, in 633 which ended the last hope of a Britain ruled by [Romano] Britons. This loss of memory and the evaporation of a military solution explains most of the changes in material culture, as well as a totemic cultural realignment which focused less on the universal Empire and Church – and frowned upon the outer gentes – than the Frankish kingdom and a straitened papacy which was forced to co-opt exactly the gentes they had once spurned.

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